Funeral remarks for Frances Willis
16 June 2016
Joel G. Hancock
2 Samuel 3:38 — And the king said unto his servants, Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?
It is entirely appropriate on this occasion to observe for anyone who might yet not be aware,… “know ye not that there is a princess, and a great woman fallen this day in Israel?”
I want to express to Ben and the girls my appreciation at the honor of having been asked to speak today. I hope that with my remarks you will come to see why I feel so duty bound to be here, to represent not just her extended family, but more especially her church from back home at Harkers Island.
Many of those who today honor her (Fran’s) memory might not know some things about Fran’s earlier life. In fact, it is precisely for that reason that years ago she had me covenant with her that if circumstances allowed, I would be here to tell that story and make sure it was a part of anything done in her honor and in her memory.
So, I would like to honor her by remembering for her, and share some of how and why Frances Anglesey first came to be the wonderful person that we all eventually came to know, and to love. That story is an important part of who she was, and she hoped that it would never be forgotten by those who loved her the most.
Some of the things I will speak of have been told, and some of you have heard them, many times before. But there are some here who have not heard the story before, and please know that Fran herself never got tired of hearing them, or of telling them.
Fran was my first cousin once removed — and for several reasons that I will try to explain, we — her immediate family and mine — felt even closer than that! I knew her all of my life, and throughout my life she was an important if not frequent part of it — and I would like to think that I was a part of hers.
I mention that because the matter of where and whom she and I came from is what placed us on a path that was always headed in a similar direction, even when those paths did not cross as frequently as we would have liked.
Her paternal grandparents, Joe Wallace and Margaret Willis, were my maternal great-grandparents. In short, my grandmother Bertha was her father’s sister. That relationship was far deeper than the bloodline itself would suggest. That is because something happened to Bertha when she was still a little girl that would have a profound effect on her soon to be born younger brother, Telford, who would become Fran’s father.
In fact, his very name was in honor of the Mormon Elder — from Bountiful, UT — who quite literally, by healing his sister and my grandmother, converted her parents, and changed Bertha’s life just as it would shape Telford’s — then and for forever — and we believe, for an eternity!
As late as when Frances could last bring herself to hear and listen, were you to have asked her to tell you who she was, or something about her, I assume that very early in that response she would have said something about Harkers Island, and once that was understood, explaining that she was one of “Telford’s crowd.”
If she had the strength and you had the time, she would have been glad to clarify for you just what that meant. Because she no longer can, I will try to do it for her, and hopefully this won’t be the last time it is told or remembered by her children and grandchildren.
In a sense our story, hers and mine, begins with the arrival of two Mormon Missionaries in 1898 at Diamond City on Shackleford Banks. That visit would have lasting consequences for them and for the people they taught. And, to borrow a line from the poet, Robert Frost, “That has made all the difference.”
Shackleford Banks is where the barrier islands of NC’s coastline turn east-west, instead of north-south – literally at the foot of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Some meteorologists have called it “Hurricane Alley,” and that is not unimportant, because one of those hurricanes would have a profound and direct influence on the story of our shared families.
One year after the Mormon missionaries arrived and converted our grandparents, a great hurricane left Diamond City uninhabitable, causing the families that lived there to move, most just across a small channel of water to Harkers Island.
Arriving with them was another set of Mormon missionaries, and then another… So that five years later they had a congregation and even a small chapel. In January of 1906 that chapel was burned by a mob, and shortly thereafter the Elders were forcibly evicted from the Island. When they were allowed to come back, more than three years later, they found a somewhat smaller group of members, but one whose faith had been forged and solidified by what they had experienced so that it has remained ever since a literal “bastion” of Mormonism right in the very heart of what is sometimes called the “Bible Belt.” By then, my grandmother Bertha and her father Telford were becoming a vital part of that Latter-Day Saint community. And just as they helped to shape that community, they themselves were shaped and molded by being a part of it.
From those few dozen earliest converts at Harkers Island – a community of just 1,207 residents in the 2010 census — there arose among them and their children several hundred followers of their faith. Because of their special circumstances many of them have been humble and even simple in their manners and in how they have tried to share and defend their beliefs when called upon, sometimes, as noted by the most unfortunate of circumstance. On the other hand, there have been an important few, even if only a handful, who have been able to share and defend their faith with honor and with power. No one that I am aware of has done that longer, or with more dignity and grace than Frances Willis Anglesey. She could proclaim without offending, and defend without attacking. He spiritual arms were an ever-expanding circle that was always looking to bring others into her orbit of love that went far mere beyond affection; and a testimony that went far beyond just a confession of her beliefs.
She was the very first missionary — not just Sister Missionary, but missionary of any kind — to serve from what was then our “Branch.” Ultimately, that would change her life even more than it changed the people she served, for it was while there that she first met the Elder who would some years later become her companion — not just for a series of transfers, but for an eternity.
That Island on which she and I grew up eventually came to be made up of what we called “crowds.” There was a time when those crowds were not just names but also neighborhoods. From Shell Point to Rush Point could be found crowds, even neighborhoods centered around family names — almost all of them not just British but English — like Yeomans, Davis, Rose, Gaskill, Nelson, Johnson, Hamilton, Fulcher, Russell, Salter, Fulford, Moore, Hancock, Styron, Brooks, Guthrie and Lewis — and then even more Lewises and more Guthries. And finally everywhere, literally everywhere, there were Willises! So there were more crowds within the bigger Willis crowd.
And in that crowd of Willises, no crowd was more distinct than was the crowd that belonged to Telford Willis. For after he married Gertie Guthrie he built her a house, and there at the foot of Red Hill, between the oaks, the two of them raised a family — not just children, but a real family.
Scores of other men of Harkers Island did something very similar, but there was something special about Teff’s family, Teff’s crowd, for Teff was what he most often was called.
As his oldest son, Bertie Clyde, might have described that difference, “Always has been, and always will be!”
It was not just that he was a born leader – and he was (fishing crews, long-haul stations, or fish house positions).
It was not just because of his intellect and wit which were exceptional. (Tell the story of Brady Lewis building his boat).
And It was not just his powerful personality that set him apart and caused him to be mourned so intently that when he died too soon — with the an entire Island of people weeping and wailing and a visible sadness that seemed to shroud the whole island like a somber veil. One of our local leaders would describe it as something like what Nauvoo might have been like after the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum.
No, it was more than all of these even when they were added together. It was, I believe, the combination of his personality and energy, with his enormous faith and spiritual devotion, the latter of which he somehow was able to instill into his children with a type of spiritual umbilical cord that was just as real, and not all that different, from how his wife Gertie had nurtured them in her womb.
That is a fitting analogy, since when those children were infants the lay in bed beside both their mother and their father.
Bertie Clyde, Margaret, Guy, Phyllis, Joyce, Carol, and especially Frances, each in their own way became an extension of their fathers being. (I must mention as an aside that I included in that Margaret, who died when she was just 16 — Elder Melvin J. Ballard prophesied that “this Island will someday be a Mormon paradise.”)
As might be assumed, they were and remained close to each other to the very end. When Fran or Bert or Guy came home, you could almost feel the whole generation swarming together at one or more homes or other places, and when it was time to go it was not all that unlike a funeral viewing as they bid their parting goodbyes.
But as each of them in their own way fashioned their own lives, there was something unique about Frances — as if she knew that in a special way she was to be “The Keeper of the Flame.” She was the rememberer. She was the one charged with linking the generations in memory in addition to ordinances.
Over the years, time and distance has taken a toll, and my children and their contemporaries remember her and her family from visits that were increasingly less frequent. But as their frequency diminished, their importance and significance was enlarged and enhanced – so that in these later years, every time she and Ben came home, and wondered aloud whether it might be their last — that visit became all the more important to us — and to her.
I also must mention that she was part of another family, as it were, on Harkers Island. It was the family known for more than half a century as the Harkers Island LDS Girls Chorus, or to most of us as just the Girl’s Chorus, even after the girls became mothers, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers.
It was organized by another Mormon Elder (Elder John Thompson) when the girls were still in their early teens. And while Frances, three of her sisters, several cousins, and some others were still just teenagers, she and they became a vital part of not just our Branch and later Ward, but also of our Island community and indeed the whole eastern third of North Carolina — singing at school & civic events, and even at other churches — especially for funerals.
I hope it will never be forgotten the vital role that the “Girls Chorus” played in our little corner of the world in bringing not just our ward and branch, but this church out of obscurity there.
For years, our congregation was known as “the church were those girls came from,” as much or even more than as they being “some girls that came from our church.” Literally all over Eastern North Carolina, in other churches, in government and civic events, and especially at funerals, they could be seen and heard and always were remembered.
O morn of you beauty, Today on the Highway, Master the Tempest is Raging, This is my Country, This I Believe, or I have a Testimony — just saying those words even now can summon up in many of us a mental image of those girls, ladies, women, even old women, as they stand with their hands on each other’s waist or shoulder, tuning to a little “pitch pipe,” then harmonizing and in parts, often a Capella, with Fran’s sister Phyllis either standing in front and directing with her hand or sometimes just standing at the end of the front line, with her sister Joyce playing the piano, with her sister Carol singing alto.
I eventually lost count of the number of times that I have spoken at occasions similar to this, often in places and churches other than our own, and standing up after those girls sat back down, always hoping that my words could tap into the spiritual awareness that had been aroused by their sacred and sweet voices. One reason for their impact was that they believed what they sang!
This was always the case when I shared the words of this song that was one of their trademarks.
This I Believe!
As sung by the Harkers Island Girl’s Chorus
In our home up in Heaven we were prepared
to come to earth as a goal
With earthly parents we would be shared
And cared for body and soul
The plan was laid up in Heaven
The choice was left up to men
To follow freedom or force commend
Which one did we defend?
This I believe, the Gospel was fashioned for men
That we might have joy in our earthly state
The live with God again
This I believe, we cherished the choice to be free
We followed our Savior who said with Love,
Come Follow Me!
In the last 30 years I have traveled extensively in Eastern North Carolina and throughout the state, and even the inter-mountain west. It would be impossible to number the times I have been asked, when someone learned where I was from or heard my accent, the following question. “Are those girls still singing together?”
So, as we lay her to her rest this afternoon, let me one more time mention her crowd, that crowd that she came from and never grew out of, by recalling that her father, Telford Willis, died in 1949 while fishing on his prized fishing boat that he had named “The Frances.” Now, sixty-seven-years later we still speak of him in no small part because of his children, and because they embodied in their lives the things that he believed and loved. What a wonderful tribute it would be to his daughter if ten, twenty, or even sixty plus years from now in a place and setting something like this, people will still speak of Frances Willis Anglesey as well because her children and grandchildren have done for her the very same thing!
And, hopefully, they will evidence in their lives the truths that flowed not just from her lips but also from her head and her heart, even as she sang.
Alisa closed her remarks by sharing her testimony. I will close mine by sharing hers.
These word were sung by her hundreds of times, and they express, I believe how she really felt.
I have a testimony, sacred and dear to me
Something that lies within my soul
One that I cannot see.
When life seems dark and its shadows
Hides all the brightness of day
I feels God’s arms around me
Leading me on each day.
Trials and tribulations oft have come my way
But I felt Him near me
And I knelt to pray
Pray to God in heaven
Thank him fervently
For the blessings from his store
Giv’n unto me
I know that I shall meet Him
Some bright and glorious day
When all the world is free from sin
And shadows pass away.
He’ll take my hand and we’ll wander
Thru flower gardens fair.
Where all the land is peaceful
And far from toil and care
I know that He liveth
Reigneth up above
May He always guide me
Bless me with his love
I’ve a testimony- Sacred, dear to me
One that lies within my soul
Something I cannot see!