Lillian and George Willoughby

Raspberries, bread, serendipity, and nonviolence.

Lillian and George Willoughby, members of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, were engaged with many projects around the world, and thousands of people have memories of how the Willoughbys affected them. I knew them well for over 40 years, and they taught me many unique, valuable lessons.

My first vivid memory of George is when a clearness committee was formed in 1966 to determine if Haddonfield (N.J.) Meeting (my meeting at the time) would support me morally and financially to work at World Friendship Center in Hiroshima. On the way to the meeting, George grilled me about whether I would be able to withstand the rigors of working abroad. I thought, "With friends like this, who needs enemies?" I later realized that he was helping me think about the hard part of the work ahead. The committee and the meeting approved my work, and the year I spent in Hiroshima changed the direction of my life.

A year later, when I had returned home, George and others, including nonviolent activist George Lakey, started what later became known as Martin Luther King School of Social Change outside of Chester, Pennsylvania. I enrolled there and learned over and over from George Willoughby of his commitment to "build the movement." He had seen many young activists join the peace movement and drop out a year or two later. This school, along with the Pendle Hill program "Creative Approaches to Social Change" and, later, the Life Center and the Movement for a New Society, were all attempts to strengthen the wider nonviolent social change movement. George took a leading role in establishing each of these initiatives.

I got to know Lillian well when we all lived at Pendle Hill from 1968 to 1971, when George was teaching a course in nonviolent social change. Lillian had always felt a deep calling to refuse to pay income taxes since such a large percentage went to war costs. One day after lunch, George and some students and I were chatting under the trees. Two IRS agents approached us and announced that they planned to confiscate the Willoughbys’ red Volkswagen Beetle. We were stunned and said little. A few minutes later, Lillian walked briskly toward all of us, carrying a briefcase with papers she needed as a dietary consultant. She opened the car door and got in, saying, "I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have to get to work!" And she drove away! Friends bought the car when it was auctioned off and gave it back to the Willoughbys, but the IRS did not use an auction again in the Philadelphia region for the next 30 years. The IRS called it "The Willoughby Principle."

About a year later, Lillian, George, and I and about 30 others had moved into six houses in West Philadelphia to form the Life Center community. The Willoughbys and I lived with eight others in a huge "Stone House" (that’s what we called it) with a full kitchen in the basement. At about four in the morning on a September day in 1971, we realized that the kitchen equipment was being removed through a side door—we were being burglarized! George was in the hospital at the time, but Lillian stood at the door and called out in a loud voice, "I don’t think it is very nice that you are stealing our kitchen. If you’re really hard up, come back, and we can talk about it." As a neighbor appeared on his front porch, the bushes rustled, and a man ran down the street. We soon recovered all the kitchen utensils and equipment. Later, Lillian and I carried a mattress down the street and left it at the house where the thief and his family lived—sleeping on the floor.

In 1973, two years after the Life Center started, members held a retreat at the Chestnut Hill meetinghouse in Philadelphia. George drove and Lillian sat next to him. I sat in the back seat of the VW Bug and found a man’s shirt and a towel. When I asked what they were for, George gave me a vague answer. After dinner the first night, George and Phyllis Taylor, also a Life Center member, stood in front of us. George started speaking about social change and nonviolence. Suddenly, Phyllis hauled off and slapped him in the face with what appeared to be a meringue pie! (It was really only a pie plate filled with whipped cream.) Our laughter did not stop for five minutes. This theater piece was followed with a searching discussion about leadership at the Life Center, why people deferred to George as an older man, and why we should be about developing our own leadership. By the way, George always loved pies—of any sort!

Another fond memory of George at the Life Center was his delight in baking bread and making yogurt. He loved to experiment with ingredients in the bread: cinnamon, raisins, half whole wheat and half white flour. He even used bean sprouts once! (I told him that didn’t work.) The smell of baking bread spread throughout the large three-story house. He also taught us how to make large quantities of yogurt. He would take a large container of water and milk powder, mix in a half-cup of yogurt, and wrap up the container with a towel. He would then place the container over a pilot light on the gas stove. In the morning, the whole container would be holding yogurt.

As I look back on Lillian’s life, I realize she had a finely tuned awareness of the emotional health of groups around her. In the spring of 1978, the radical group MOVE and the Philadelphia police department were enmeshed in a volatile conflict in the Powelton section of Philadelphia. Lillian and I, along with many other F/friends, held a round-the-clock vigil a few blocks from the MOVE house. We called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. That summer, after a shoot-out between the police and MOVE members, a large group gathered. People were scared and very angry. Lillian and I and others from the Life Center headed over to see what we could do. Before arriving, Lillian insisted we stop at a food co-op to buy a large container of water and many paper cups. I did not understand why she did this, and she did not explain. When we got to the crowd, she simply walked around, asking individuals if they would like water. It was a hot day, and everyone said yes. I soon realized that Lillian’s real motivation for handing out water was to inject pleasant personal connections, which slowly changed the whole atmosphere.

George and Lillian moved to their Deptford, New Jersey, home around 1985. This enabled Lillian to put energy into her large and growing raspberry patch and to make time to can, freeze, or dry a variety of Jersey tomatoes, corn, peaches, string beans, and other produce. I remember one time walking into the kitchen on a hot August day, and every flat space in the room was covered with bright red tomatoes about to be canned.

Through all the years of the Life Center (1971-87), the Willoughbys traveled as often as their responsibilities and finances allowed, usually to India, but also to East Africa, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, and Japan. They had many friends in all these countries. During their trips, Lillian often wrote letters to children of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. I volunteered to type the letters and distribute copies to the children. George was almost always fundraising for various causes related to their foreign friends.

Lillian and George took a step that had significant influence when they bought 35 acres of woods, meadow, and marshland next to their property in Deptford. This land eventually became the Old Pine Farm Natural Lands Trust, which is unique since it is controlled by a board of trustees, who are all volunteers. There is neither a government connection nor paid staff. The Willoughbys had no difficulty gathering like-minded people to make up the board, and gradually, members learned to solve problems and raise funds. When I moved to Deptford in 1994, I joined the board. We spent the first few years gathering many bags of trash and large industrial tires that had washed down the creeks into the marsh. We spent the next few years creating a walking trail with benches along it. A few people noticed our efforts and volunteered to help. An Eagle Scout asked if he could build us a picnic table and we quickly agreed. We learned how to work with the township and state authorities to buy more land and to pay for it, so long as we did the work. Later, we learned to promote the land by having guided walks each month and annual special events where we invited speakers. One of the powerful memories I have is of the time when a husband and wife led us in a Native American ceremony of gratitude for our act of rescuing the land. It was held near the picnic table by Big Timber Creek, which runs past the land trust. The leaders brought drums and rattles, enough for every person to use one. We created a noisy and happy ceremony.

In 1990, I met two men from Taiwan at a conference in Boston. They were looking for someone to continue to educate leaders of the progressive movement in Taiwan in nonviolent social change techniques. At the time, Taiwan was struggling to decide how to govern itself and whether it would maintain independence from mainland China. Knowing that such a challenging assignment would have a greater chance of success with a team of trainers, I invited George and a Japanese trainer, Yukio Aki, to come with me. We led three workshops in ten days: An Introduction to Nonviolence, Advanced Nonviolence Theory and Practice, and Training for Peacekeeping. The workshops were held in Mandarin Chinese, so we hired a participant to translate for us. By then, George, Lillian, and I had led workshops for over 20 years, and while George and Lillian had led workshops in languages other than English, this was my first time.

We three trainers learned at a fast pace and on many different levels. We became familiar with the issues important to the participants—sometimes up to 50 people attended one session. When translation is necessary, the pace is always slower. When we trainers decided to use a certain training tool, I would usually defer to George to lead it, but he always wanted me to lead. One tool examined the history of a certain issue. Participants asked us to examine the history of the liberation of Taiwan. I sensed that this was a big issue, especially given the tension between mainland China and Taiwan. But I took a deep breath and we started.

The tool involved dividing history into decades and identifying major initiatives that took place in that time frame. The chart we created went from 1905 (the start of the occupation of Taiwan by Japan) to the present (1990). People suggested major events, which were translated, and the translator wrote them in Chinese on the chart. I then asked people what events prevented change; they, too, were put on the chart. Then I asked which events had led to others—creating a general sense of causes and consequences. This process took most of the morning. By the end, the chart was packed with a general history of social change in the liberation of Taiwan over 85 years. People seemed generally pleased with the results. George, Aki, and I always evaluated workshops with participants since we knew people would evaluate them among themselves. We wanted to learn from our experiences in order to become better. A number of participants offered comments. Then an older farmer spoke (in his own language) and bowed at the end. The translator told us what he said: "Thank you for giving us back our history." I was very moved and have never forgotten the event; it showed me once again how powerful nonviolence training can be when trainers plan carefully—and listen very closely to the participants. Once again I was grateful to George for teaching me how to be a careful trainer, which he had done at the King School, at Pendle Hill, and at the Life Center.

Living four blocks from the Willoughbys in Deptford from 1995 to 2009 allowed me to visit them often. Once I mentioned that the side-view mirror on my car had become rusted and cloudy. I continued talking with Lillian and did not notice that George had disappeared for half an hour. When I finally left, they walked with me to the car (this was unusual for them to do). As I angled the car to leave, George suggested that I check to see if there was enough room behind me, and I looked into the side-view mirror to check. All the while, they were smiling at me. I did not realize until I got home that the mirror was no longer cloudy and rusty; George had changed the mirror during my visit. I phoned them right away to thank them. George loved to play little tricks on people and invite them to figure out what was new. It was part of his teasing, sometimes irascible sense of humor.

The Willoughby family gathered at the home of their daughter, Anita, in New York City for Christmas in 2008. On December 23, Lillian suffered a stroke. Lillian had thought for some years about how she wanted to deal with an extended, crippling illness. She decided she did not want to live as an invalid. She asked to be taken home to Deptford to wait for death. George, their children and husbands, and some close friends took care of Lillian, even arranging a schedule so that pairs of people would always be awake around the clock to respond to her needs. It was not difficult to find friends to volunteer.

Lillian took no food (except for a taste of ice cream) and small sips of water. She died on January 15, just two weeks shy of her 94th birthday. A few days later, Sally Willoughby, the daughter who lived with George and Lillian, met with members of the Old Pine Farm Natural Lands Trust. We all loved Lillian and wanted to know how the volunteer system for her care had worked. Sally said, "We (the family) could not have done it without you!" And we replied, "And we could not have done what we did without you!" In this simple exchange I saw once again that a community of friends was able to create a bond of caring that we did not realize we could create. This kind of serendipity took place throughout Lillian’s life.

When George died suddenly in January 2010, Sally and Anita phoned friends to come to the house. It was filled with his closest friends, giving him a loving send-off. Some months later, the family invited friends to use George’s ashes to plant a walnut tree in the backyard. They had earlier planted a pawpaw tree in Lillian’s memory a few yards away.

It would be impossible to summarize the qualities of these Friends’ lives. These are simply some of the strongest memories I carry of George and Lillian. If you knew them, no doubt you have your own; may they enrich your life.

Lynne Shivers

Lynne Shivers, a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, has been a social activist, college teacher, and writer.