Meditations on My Uncle Robin at His Memorial Service at the Dover Quaker Meeting House
“And every one ‘neath their vine and fig tree
Shall live in peace and unafraid
And into plowshares turn their swords,
Nations shall learn war no more”
~ Traditional Lyrics Sung at Dover Friends Meeting
By Catherine Austin Fitts
On Saturday I attended the memorial service for my uncle Robin at the Dover Friends Meeting in Dover, NH.
I flew into Boston from New York in the morning and then drove up the New Hampshire seacoast to Dover. It was a beautiful sunny day. The roads were lined with trees and the spectacular yellow, red, and gold-turning leaves that mark a New England autumn.
It was the perfect day to celebrate Robin and his life and to see so many friends and family touched by his love and good works.
As I parked my car, I could see the Dover Meeting House was surrounded by stately tall trees and an ocean of blazing autumn leaves shimmering in the sunlight. People were streaming in who had come from far and wide, representing personal and professional connections of almost a century. A large sign was strung across the outer meeting house wall that faced the street – Love Thy Neighbor (no exceptions!).
The Quaker service was rich and moving, lead by the Dover elders on the meeting house facing bench. Robin’s two tall strong sons, Roy and Tom, sat on the front facing bench, shining with pride for their tall strong father and the confidence that comes in a clan marked by a powerful father’s love.
One after another, friends and family rose to speak of Robin:
- His love of learning and teaching; and willingness to listen to others;
- His passion to engage with ideas, understand the events of the day, and to take action in the world around him;
- His ability to embrace contradictions – raised as a Quaker, he flew a B17 bomber, and then worked as an advocate to prevent war and violence both on the world stage and in the communities where he worked and lived;
- His commitment to leave the people and institutions around him better off for his presence;
- His generosity of time and money;
- His love of skiing and decision to stop skiing well into his 80s because he could not trust himself to stop skiing fast; and
- His hard work, his merriment. and his endless patience with those who lacked his integrity and strength.
Robin was a man who worked at improving his character. Years ago, he sent me a copy of a detailed audit he had prepared of his own character. He identified the areas where he could improve and the effort he would invest to do so. His gears were always on forward. He was always excited to discover what came next and how it could inspire him to grow.
As a child I would sit at the dinner table with my mother Barbara and my uncle Robin would tell the gathered clan the stories of their childhood with their brother Clem, who died as a young man. When Ruth died, Joe married Ruth’s dear friend Therese Barclay who had gone to Quaker day school with Ruth in Philadelphia and then to Swarthmore College with both Joe and Ruth. We inherited a whole new family of more than 20 marvelous cousins who all joined the summer gatherings of the clans.
After Joe and Ruth passed away, Robin became the steward of many of the family responsibilities at the heart of an extended network of the family friends and network.
As I sat in the Dover Meeting House, I listened to several of Robin’s neighbors discuss his many efforts on their behalf. It was so typical of Robin. I never came to visit him when his desk was not overflowing with projects to help friends and community.
One of the neighbors spoke about our New England summers together. Those were summers filled with early mornings tending to gardens, to hiking through mountains, of jumping off the beam in the barn into the beds of hay, or reading books about Scottish chiefs in the hammock under the birch trees, and dinners topped off with blueberry pie made as the pie coming out of the oven of the wood stove, and a mean competition at a pinball game named Bagatelle under the kitchen gas light.
I drove to New Hampshire to see Robin in July. He had been struggling with his health. His memory was failing him. When I spoke with him by phone, he was very unhappy about his memory loss. His role, he felt, was to take care of others. He did not enjoy needing others to take care of him.
Our day started with breakfast in the group dining room in his assisted living complex. Breakfast, as always, involved a lively discussion about politics. I loved debating issues with Robin. Even when we disagreed, it was great fun. His experience and knowledge were so rich – our dissection of events challenged us to stretch and gain a deeper insight. Politics never ever interrupted our joy in being engaged and our appreciation for each other. If Robin believed I was wrong, then the responsibility was mine – I needed to dig deeper, consider other aspects of the issue. There was always value there; there was always an opportunity to learn and to grow. Robin made Proverbs 2:4 come alive: “And by knowledge shall the chambers be filled with all precious and pleasant riches.”
Before I left, we returned to his apartment and talked about the things we had known to come together this one last time, to say – things that cannot be said in a phone call. I told Robin how much I loved him and how grateful I was for the many blessings that he had given me throughout my life – and most of all for his courage in doing so at the most dangerous, difficult moments.
Robin told me in his perfectly coherent fashion that he had had a good life, but that he did not want to live with a failing memory. He had decided that it was time to die and he wanted me to know that it was what he wanted. Typical of Robin, he swore me to secrecy. He wanted to manage the process of his leaving in his own way without being a burden to his family.
The week before Robin died, I began speaking with him in prayer. As he passed away, I saw him very happy, released from the responsibilities he could no longer fulfill, and delighted to be leaning into his “next big thing.” As always, Robin had his gear in forward.
He was happy to be reunited – at last Joe and Ruth and their three children, Robin, Barbara and Clem, were together. A new era for our ancestors and our family had begun. It was so typical of Robin that he would leave us with a spirit of a beginning — of a new era and not the end of an era. That was the spirit that filled the Dover Meeting House. The next generation was moving into leadership positions.
One of my favorite moments at the service was a quote that my cousin Lydia Willits Bartholomew read that reminded us all of Robin:
“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed, and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men, and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty, or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given the best he had, whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction. “ ~ B. A. Stanley
The service was indeed filed with divine blessing – with Robin’s spirit and the love that we shared with him. It was also love for a culture and a time from which Robin came–A world filled with confidence for our future and the faith of the clans who could build it. As Churchill said, “We have not journeyed all this way, across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.”
I could feel a new era beginning. We would go forward with confidence. We would live a good life. We could create a world of which we could be proud – a world where people were free to disagree and debate, and could sort it out, make it work. A world at peace, with “liberty and justice for all.”
We knew how to do it. Robin showed us how.
ROBIN DANA WILLITS
Robin Dana Willits, Ph.D., age 94, died Saturday, September 30th, 2017, in Exeter, NH. He was formerly Associate Dean and Professor of the Whittemore School of Business, now the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics at the University of New Hampshire. He was the coauthor of the successful textbook, “Effective Behavior in Organizations,” by Cohen, Fink, Gadon and Willits.
After retiring in 1990, Professor Willits taught part time, and volunteered for Hospice. A lifelong Quaker, Professor Willits was an active member of the Dover Friends Meeting, Dover, NH, where he served different leadership roles including counseling prisoners on alternative ways to cope with violence. He was president of the Strafford Guidance Center in NH. He continued to ski into his 80’s, and had a life-long interest in the Mt. Washington area of New Hampshire.
He was born in Philadelphia, PA, and graduated from Westtown School, in West Chester, PA in 1941. He was a pilot of a B17 bomber in World War II, flying thirty-four missions from England over Germany. He married Lydia Stokes Willits, from Moorestown, NJ, the mother of his children. He received two degrees in 1949 – AB in Physics from Middlebury College, and BS in Engineering from MIT. He started his career as an industrial engineer at Eastman Kodak, gained more experience as a manager at General Control, in Boston, MA, and later at Raytheon. He developed new skills, such as learning public speaking by joining “Toastmasters”. In his forties, he earned his Ph.D. in organizational behavior from MIT (1965).
As a professor at UNH, he was involved in changing the focus of the Whittemore School of Business, with less emphasis on accounting and more emphasis on managerial skills and the understanding of organizational behavior. A sabbatical year and a Fulbright award allowed him to live and teach in Sri Lanka, and test his ideas in a place where the culture was quite different. He installed solar panels that generated hot water, in the early 80’s, well before this practice reached much public awareness.
He is survived by two sons, Roy C. Willits of Clarksburg, NJ, (wife Arlene), and Thomas R. Willits of Northampton, MA, (wife Nancy Wheeler); 3 granddaughters, Lindsay Fogg-Willits, Nina Wheeler Roberts, and Nicole Wormell Bryant; and 8 great grandchildren. He is also survived by his second wife, Phyllis Killam-Abell, and stepdaughter, Susan Abell and his nieces, Barbara Hayden Fitts, Catherine Austin Fitts, Nancy Deren, Thalia Venerable, and his nephew, Michael Fitts.
The public service will be October 28, 2017, at 3:00 PM at the Dover Friends Meeting, 141 Central Avenue, Dover, NH. Donations may be made to NH American Friends Service Committee.