A Life: Lilla Safford Willey; ‘She loved celebrating everyone else’

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    Chauncey and Lilla Willey stand with three of their four children, Wain, Meredith, Peggy, wearing their Sunday best in the mid-1950s. Their fourth child, "little Lilla," was not yet born. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Lilla Willey stands on a skim board at Wallis Sands Beach in Rye, N.H., in 2003. (Family photograph) Family photographs

  • Lilla Willey (at right) sings with the choir at the Thetford Hill Church in an undated photograph. From left to right: Alice Hebb, Eleanor Zue, Helen MacLam and Lilla Willey; Tom Norton is at right in back. (Family photograph)

  • From left, Lilla Willey, Alice Hebb and Sue Williams in a community theater production in the original gymnasium at Thetford Academy in the mid-1950s. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/3/2021 8:46:06 PM
Modified: 10/3/2021 8:46:08 PM

THETFORD — At the urging of some friends, and in search of a place to rear their children and grow their own food, Lilla and Chauncey Willey moved from New York City to Thetford in 1948.

“They were pioneers,” said Meredith Kendall, the Willeys’ oldest daughter. “That was the thing to do; move to Vermont and raise your children (in) a healthier environment.”

In her 73 years of residence in Thetford, Lilla Safford Willey, who died at the age of 101 on Sept. 3, contributed to the community and culture of her adopted hometown. She and Chauncey, who died in 1999, raised four children in Thetford. They renovated an old farmhouse, raised animals and grew gardens. They hosted weekly Friday night dinners for their neighbors, bringing together people from varied walks of life.

Chauncey was a “silent type,” while Lilla Willey “was always the one that people would reach out to talk to,” said Lilla Barrett, or “Little Lilla,” the Willeys’ youngest child.

Those weekly gatherings included a “smorgasbord of people” from hippies to bankers, said Barrett, who remembers falling asleep under the hearth during the gatherings, which often included singing and guitar playing.

At times, Willey also welcomed people going through tough times such as divorces to come and stay in the farmhouse that Chauncey, a builder, renovated. People loved being around Willey not only because she was a good listener, but because she always had something to give back to the person she was speaking with that would help guide them through whatever it was they were navigating, Barrett said.

It’s that open and welcoming attitude that many friends and relatives of Willey remember most. She had “an amazing quality to be embracing things as they come,” Duncan Nichols, a Thetford Hill resident, said.

Willey was born in New York City on Feb. 8, 1920, to Dr. Henry Safford, a surgeon, and Lilla Agard. She had an older brother, Barney. At the age of 26, Willey’s mother forgot the key to their brownstone and fell trying to climb in a window. She later died of pneumonia in the hospital. Lilla was just five at the time and her mother’s death left her to be cared for by a series of governesses and stepmothers.

“They had plenty of help, but it isn’t like having your mom around,” Kendall said.

Willey later attended St. Johnsbury Academy, graduating in 1937, and then Smith College, before transferring to Adelphi University. At Adelphi, she majored in English and studied interpretive dance under Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham and Jack Cole, pioneers in the field. That experience left her with a lifelong love of dance and movement that she carried with her to Thetford.

She and Chauncey met during World War II while supporting the war effort at the Sperry Corporation in Brooklyn, which manufactured computers; precision instruments and controls; farm machinery; and electric and hydraulic equipment. They were married in 1943 and had their first two children, Wain and Meredith, in New York before moving to Thetford.

During that first decade in Thetford, the Willeys were busy child-rearing and renovating their home, Kendall said. They canned food that they grew in their garden and raised chickens.

When the kids missed the school bus, they walked to school, which was a mile away, Kendall said.

“Mom was a part of that,” she said. “She let natural consequences be our teacher.”

Barrett said her mother taught her how to apologize.

“She was a great mom,” Barrett said.

The Willeys made friends with their neighbors and began attending the First Congregational Church in Thetford, aka Thetford Hill Church, where Willey would come to hold many positions, including as a deacon and as a member of the choir.

It was at the church where the seeds of what would become the Parish Players were sown. Willey taught some of her friends to dance and they performed routines she choreographed for Christmas productions. Her social network grew from there.

She “met everybody in the community that way,” Kendall said.

Dean Whitlock and Sally Duston, who moved to Thetford in the 1970s, were among those who met Willey through the Parish Players. In addition, they ran into Willey around town at the library or the annual Thetford Hill Fair.

When Whitlock encountered her, she always seemed upbeat, he said. He could be sure to have a talk complete with her “pert observations often tinged by humor.”

“She greeted the world with a smile every day,” he said. “She was optimistic.”

Willey had the ability to find joy all around her, even toward the end of her life.

“When she was losing her near eyesight in the last year, she would be bowled over by the sky, the light, the mountains, clouds, the feel of the sun,” her daughter Peggy Willey said.

She shared her zest for life through a wide range of projects over her long life. She taught clogging workshops for the Strafford 4-H Club and served as an instructor for the Ford Sayre ski program. She also was a member of the Thetford Historical Society, Thetford Chamber Singers, Shape-note singers and the VA Hospice Choir. She was a longtime volunteer at Latham Library.

“She just kept always moving,” said Barrett, her youngest daughter.

Willey’s near-constant motion also stood out to her friends.

Duston recalled attending the opening of the Mimi’s Trail in Thetford with Willey in the late winter several years ago. Though Willey was about 30 years Duston’s senior, she walked confidently down the snowy trail, while Duston found herself slipping and sliding.

“She was so unchanging physically,” Duston said.

Willey, herself, expressed gratitude for being able to remain active as a nonagenarian in a 2011 Valley News story about the VA Hospice Choir.

“(The nurses and doctors) don’t complain when we get in their way and we crowd in the little room,” she said at the time. “I think we’re lucky to be able to do that. … It is a joy, and I would say a privilege to have the venue.”

Though fond of activity, Willey disliked being the center of attention, said Peggy Willey.

“She loved celebrating everyone else,” Peggy said.

Professionally, Willey taught typing at Thetford Academy and worked as a secretary at Dartmouth College before launching a career as a social worker. In that role, she worked for the Vermont Department of Social Services from 1961 to 1986, when she retired. At the time, there was no specific training required for state social workers and Willey learned on the job, Kendall said. But she also brought her own background and personality to the role.

“Her English skills are what helped her with communication with people,” Kendall said.

She remembered what people told her about themselves and their families.

“People in the church call her the godmother of the church,” Kendall said. She “kept her finger on everyone she met. What they were doing, how they were.”

Every day over the past two years as Willey’s health declined, somewhere from six to eight people would come to her house or call just to check on her.

Willey had a way of making people feel welcome, by offering them cookies, fruit and sandwiches, and inviting them out to her porch with a view of the valley to talk.

She would “talk to them (and) make them feel whole and healed,” Kendall said. “She knew how to do that with listening and communicating with people.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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