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She might be an 'old old,' but Dorothy Willis has never been happier

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 8, 2012 - She doesn’t believe in fortune tellers. 

Almost 50 years ago, though, a pastor at her church shared something with Dorothy Willis, a prophecy, maybe. He looked at her and said, “Hey, you be sick a lot, don’t you?”

Yes, sir, she replied.

“Your better days are in front of you,” he told her.

And he was right.

Willis is 78 now, mother of three, with four grandchildren and one great grandchild. She’s an “old old” by the count of demographers and gerontologists. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people 75 to 84 grew 14.8 percent (from 12.4 million to 13 million) over the last decade. Willis is counted among the “old olds,” who are often still quite active but sometimes beginning to deal with issues such as health and mobility.

After a lifetime of hard work, though, Willis’ golden years have a lovely glow to them.

“It’s the best time of my life, really,” she says, “because I don’t have to worry about anything.”

Country mouse

The time is still quite clear. She was 10, living with her great aunt on a sharecropper farm in Mississippi. Already Willis could make pie crust from scratch and homemade biscuits. One day, her aunt told her to kill a chicken. Willis remembers doing her best to wring that chicken’s neck. Eventually, she got her chicken lunch for the train she’d ride by herself that day from Mississippi to St. Louis, joining her mother and aunt here.

From then, Willis lived in St. Louis, on 14th Street, at what was once Franklin, she says. She and the other kids would run to 12th Street to watch the presses roll newspapers in the windows at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

She was a city girl now, but she remembered the lessons her auntie had taught her. Keep smiling, no matter what, was one of them.

And she did.

Willis dropped out of high school, married and had her first child. She later divorced and remarried, having two more children. She divorced again and spent 21 years raising her children by herself. For 45 years she worked for California Manufacturing Co. She got her GED, worked two jobs sometimes, determined to make it on her own. She married for the third time in 1985, and finally, in 1996, she retired. 

In 2000, Willis lost her mother. Then, at 66, she lost her third husband to a heart attack. Moments before, she watched him working in the yard. Then, there was a crowd. Then, he was gone.

One year later, her only son was murdered.

“I don’t even know at one time if I was really even existing,” she says.

But she got through it, piece by piece.

“She’s had to work hard,” says Willis’ oldest daughter, Thelma Steward. “But she’s a stronger person for it. There’s an old saying, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. She’s a good example of that. She’s a very strong woman, and now she has the time to relax and enjoy her life.”

The elephants in the room

In her Chesterfield villa, small, fragile elephants fill shelves, tables and the empty spaces of most rooms. Her collection started years ago and has traveled with her here, to the Willows at Brooking Park, a retirement community with a continuum of care, including assisted living and skilled care. 

Steward and her husband, David Steward, chairman of the board and founder of World Wide Technology, have been blessed, Steward says. They want their mothers to relax now, “and enjoy a safe and comfortable environment to live in as well, and not have the worries that so many of our seniors have now.”

And Willis is quite comfortable. She keeps busy with her friends, water aerobics and the entertainment her community provides. She’s a “prayer warrior” at her church, Praise Fellowship, and faith is still a strong pillar of her life.

While raising her children, through loss and health problems such as high blood pressure, she’s tried to bless her family in whatever ways she can.

“They started being blessed,” she says, “and they started blessing me.”

That pastor years ago was right. 

“I thought about that a couple of weeks ago,” says Willis, seated in a soft chair in her living room.

“He says, ‘some people’s best days are behind them, but yours are in front.’ These are my best days.”

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