James Lee Willett was born on January 9, 1926 at Old Mesilla, New Mexico. His parents were Ewen Chambers Willett and Bessie Brown Willett. He received his elementary education at Burkburnett, Texas, and his secondary education at Coffeyville, Kansas.
He attended Harding College, in Searcy, Arkansas where he graduated in 1947 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible and social studies, with minors in English and education. In 1971, he was awarded his Master of Arts degree in music from West Texas State University in Canyon, Texas.
James and Nina Willett -- 1999
On Christmas Day in 1945, James Willett married Nina Spears of Butler, Missouri. They were both 19 and had met at Harding. Nina worked as a secretary while James finished his degree. Their children were Jimmy Lee (1947), Dwight (1954), Edward (1959), and William Chidowe (1957). Willy, a chosen son from Zimbabwe, became a part of their family in 1972.
Brother Willett was a teacher and a preacher.
- He taught fifth grade and preached for the church of Christ at Hedley, Texas (1947-50).
- He preached full-time at Fullerton, Texas (1950-51).
- In 1951 he moved his family to the Butler, Missouri area where Nina was raised. For seven years he taught at the Ballard school, grades 7 and 8 for two years, and then for the next five years he taught all the high school English classes and served as vice-principal. He preached for various congregations in the area, including Clinton (1951-58).
- He taught school at Lordsburg, New Mexico (1958-59). While there he preached for the local congregation and for the church at Duncan, Arizona.
- He preached full-time at Bayard, New Mexico (1959-61).
- He taught at Lubbock Christian High School in Lubbock, Texas, where he also served as chorus director and basketball coach (1961-65).
- While in Lubbock he preached for the church at New Deal, Texas and for the Sunrise congregation in Lubbock.
- He taught at the public school in Tulia, Texas (1965-67).
Then began what was to become the crowning work of his life, when he was invited to move to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Canada to teach at Western Christian College. He served as a full-time teacher at Western for twenty years (1967-87) and continued teaching half-time from 1987-89.
Because of his diverse interests, training and capabilities, he served Western Christian College in many capacities.
At times he held the positions of vice-principal, dean of students, dean of student affairs, and registrar. One year he was a member of a committee of four who administered the school between presidents.
He taught Bible, social studies, English, geography, music and music appreciation. He directed drama and sponsored the grade 12 class, the student council, and the yearbook.
He directed the chorus and various singing groups (Skylarks, Men's Ensemble, Sonshine). As director of the chorus he had close contact with the students and was able to influence them for good year after year. Western earned the reputation of being a 'singing school'. Many years most of the students were in the large chorus, open to anyone who enjoyed singing, and a quarter or more would be in the auditioned small chorus.
The annual spring-break chorus tour became a tradition when the chorus visited churches across Western Canada and in the northern United States. Twice they sang on the floor of the state legislature in Helena, Montana and once for the lieutenant-governor of Alberta in his chambers. The chorus made several recordings, and became known for its excellence.
James coached basketball from 1967-84. His boys' basketball team won the provincial championships five times, and the team made it to the provincial playoffs another five times.
Brother Willett was known for his love for his family and his students, but most of all for his love for God. Wherever he lived, he served the Lord faithfully, teaching Bible classes, preaching and actively participating in the work of the church. At Tulia, Texas he served as a deacon. At Weyburn, Saskatchewan he was a deacon (1969-72) and then served as an elder until 1998 when he resigned because of declining health. In his many activities he was encouraged and supported by his dedicated and faithful wife.
Appreciation was shown to him in the many awards and honours he received. The Western Christian College yearbook was dedicated to him twice (1978, 1989). He was nominated for the Kin Sport Award in Weyburn. In 1986, he received the Saskatchewan High School Sports Association Service Award in appreciation for his years of leadership and his contribution to the athletic program of his school, the district, and the province. In 1989, he received a Meritorious Service Award on the occasion of his retirement in appreciation for 20 years of service to education in the Province of Saskatchewan.
At the age of 76, James Willet died of a heart attack at his home in Weyburn, Saskatchewan on Monday, April 15, 2002. He had preached his last sermon at Williston, North Dakota the day before.