Eulogy for my father, Dr. Norman P. Willett

A week ago, I—and my brothers and my children and my mom and my relatives—buried my dad.

A full obituary, written by a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, was published on September 23.

The following is a remembrance of my father, based on the eulogy I gave at his funeral.


Dr. Norman P. Willett

Dr. Norman P. Willett
April 13, 1928 – September 19, 2014

My dad was a teacher. An educator. A sharer of knowledge. He touched many lives in his role as head of the microbiology department at Temple University’s Medical and Dental Schools.

Here are some of the things my father taught me.

Talk to the animals

Dad grew up on a turkey farm in Demarest, New Jersey. While most of the land was sold by the time I was born, my grandparents still lived in the old farmhouse—and that’s where we visited them. We would all gather on the lawn—my aunt and uncle and cousin, and great aunts and great uncles and my grandparents and my parents and my brothers. While the old folk—and when you’re 6 or 8, everyone is old folk—talked boring adult stuff, I would explore the house and the grounds and imagine what it would have been like to grow up there—what life was like for my dad and his brother. There were so many nooks and crannies and rooms and hallways and a barn and an attic that was the Best Thing Ever.

My dad would tell stories about how he hated cleaning the hen house, and would have rather had his brother do it. He talked about how he would bravely walk through a swarm of bees—pollinators needed on the farm—slowly, slowly—while I shivered at the thought.

Sometimes, if he was in a good mood, we could cajole my dad to really bring life on the farm to life, by imitating the sound of a turkey gobbling, or a hen laying an egg. It always made us laugh. Years later, when a flock of wild turkeys visited my home in Bridgewater, I channeled my dad and gobbled at them. They gobbled back. It was the coolest thing.

My dad taught me to talk turkey.

Willett's Farm in the winter

The old farmhouse at Willett’s Farm

My dad as a very young boy, along with my great grandparents, grandparents, aunts and uncles

From left to right: back row: my dad’s Uncle George, my grandfather Max, holding my Dad (Norman), my grandmother Rose, Aunt Kay (George’s wife), Aunt Edith (Max’s sister) and my great grandparents Tamara (Mary) and Bernard Willett. One of the things I cherish about this photo is the obvious love my grandparents have for their little boy, my dad. Circa 1929.

Max and Rose Willett, with Norman (my father, behind his parents) and Bernard (in my grandmother's arms)

My grandfather Max and grandmother Rose on the steps of the farmhouse with my dad (Norman) in the back and Bernard on his mother’s lap. Circa 1932

A travelin’ man

Dad loved to travel. He—and my mom—have been to China, South America, the Galapagos, Africa, Australia, Indonesia, Europe, Scandinavia, Iceland, Israel, Egypt and the Mideast, Russia and eastern Europe. And more.

But Dad wasn’t just a global traveler; he loved the US, and had been to nearly every one of the 50 states including Alaska and Hawaii.

We traveled as a family all around the states and Canada. Every year, Dad would announce something like, “This year, we’re doing the Pacific Northwest.” And we would do the Pacific Northwest.

This was in the days before the Internet, yet each trip was carefully researched, with awe-inspiring historical, cultural and geographical stops along the way. We hiked the Athabasca glacier. Climbed in the footsteps of the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde. We walked the length of the Wright brother’s first flights.

If it weren’t for my dad, I would not have ridden a mule down into the mind-bogglingly huge, beautiful and awesome Grand Canyon.

Even when we weren’t doing the Pacific Northwest, when we were all in the car on our way somewhere, we’d play the geography game. It went like this: somebody would start by naming a geographical location. It could be a city, state, country, river, continent and so on. The next person had to name a place that began with the last letter of the one the previous person had said. So if Dad began and said, “Abington,” I might say, “New Brunswick” since it begins with N, the last letter of Abington. The next person could say Kansas: it begins with K. And so on. You could only use places that hadn’t been used before. You’d lose if you couldn’t think of anything.

This is how I—and my brothers—knew about Ouagadougou and Dnipropetrovsk. Ouagadougou, by the way, is the capital of Burkina Faso, in West Africa. I wouldn’t know this if it wasn’t for my dad.

During the game, someone always decided at some point to say Appomattox. Which is why we all know about Xenia, Ohio. And of course my kids know it too, because I taught them to play the geography game, and we used to play it on the way to visit Grandma Bev and Grandpa Norm.

My dad taught me to know about my country and my world—the towns and cities, the rivers and mountains.

Bev Norm honeymoon Fontainebleau

My parents began travelling on their honeymoon. Here they are in Miami, at the Fontainebleau Hotel in 1953.

Norm Dad Susan David Mark bottom Grand Canyon

My dad, me and my brothers David and Mark at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It was so hot that day, we cooled off in one of the Colorado River’s tributaries.

Norm in Japan

My dad in Japan.

Bev Norm Indonesia basket

My parents in Indonesia.

Norm Bev pedicab NYC

My dad and mom in a pedicab in Manhattan, on their way to a celebratory dinner for their granddaughter’s graduation from college.

Microbiology: the study of some of the smallest bits of life

My dad was a microbiologist. He never, ever, turned that off. He served as Chair of the Department of Microbiology at Temple University, where he built the dental microbiology department, designed the interior of a new building to house the basic sciences for dentistry and pharmacy, studied streptococci, and edited a textbook of dental microbiology–Essential Dental Microbiology–which you can still find on Amazon.

Listed in Who’s Who in Microbiology, my dad served in many local and national board positions for the American Society of Microbiology. His favorite task was to organize symposia at the national ASM meetings. A great believer in science for everyone–not just scientists–his symposia covered topics like “Science and Science Fiction: A “Reel” Approach to Science Literacy and Education”  and “Jurassic Park Revisited; Using Science Fiction Films to Teach Biology and Physics.” He invited a Wall Street Journal reporter, Jerry Bishop, to discuss “Science and the Irresponsible Press.”  For another session,  Laurie Garrett, a Newsday reporter, called in from Africa with a report on the Ebola virus. That one was more than 15 years ago.

I was honored when my dad started calling me and asking, “What do you think of this for a title of my next symposium?”

With a father like that, it was no wonder my brothers and I knew how to wash our hands well when we were very young. And my kids, too. My daughter recalls a tour of his lab at Temple. My son remembers an experiment his grandpa did where young Aaron wiped his hand on a prepared petri dish, then washed his hand and wiped it on a second one. Both petri dishes were incubated, and then Grandpa Norm showed the results to his grandkids. This is why my  daughter (and my son and I) flush public toilets with our feet.

But there was beauty in the microbes as well. My dad gave Aaron his first microscope, so he could discover that for himself. And, if you had ever visited the house where I grew up, you would see hanging on the wall like artwork, pages from one of my dad’s microbiology calendars—featuring photographs of microbes and other substances taken through an electron microscope.

My dad taught me to pay attention to the small. To find the beauty and the power in the tiniest of things.

Ladies Mantle water droplets

Early on, my dad was the photographer of the family. Now I carry on that legacy–and I love taking pictures and finding patterns in the small. Here is one of my photos: water droplets on a Ladies Mantle leaf.

Water droplet curved stem fog

Another of my pics: what microbes hide in a droplet of water…

I’m a Rutgers Grad, RU?

Dad was a proud member of the class of ’49 at Rutgers University. Rutgers was where my dad went from farm boy to budding scientist. It was here he discovered his love of microbiology. It was here that he made friends—in his fraternity—that lasted throughout his life. It was here that his love of learning bloomed.

Even when he moved to Pennsylvania, Dad never left Rutgers. He helped start a Rutgers alumni group for the greater Philadelphia area. Dad was thrilled that I decided to attend his alma mater. He loved going to the football games with his alumni friends. And he was even happier when I joined him. We cheered together for the Scarlet Knights.

I attended the ceremony when Dad was named a Loyal Son of Rutgers, an honor bestowed by the Rutgers Alumni Association, their highest acknowledgement of service.

When my daughter Corinne was born, Dad’s first words to me were “Rutgers, class of 2012.”

My dad taught me about loyalty and legacy.

Norman Rutgers young

My dad was on the Rutgers track team.

Corinne baby Rutgers hat

Corinne, about 4 months old, dressed in Rutgers gear…for my dad.

Proud Olympic Supporter

He was never a sports nut, my dad, but he loved and followed Rutgers football and basketball. Though he was a New Jersey boy, he supported the Philadelphia professional teams. He would take us kids to watch the Phillies play—usually through a program that rewarded straight-A students with tickets to the games. At heart, though, he was still a Yankees fan. That never changed.

My Dad was an avid fan of the Olympics. Winter Olympics. Summer Olympics. We watched them all together. I think he loved track and field events the best. Pole vault. Shot put. Discus. Hurdles. Gymnastics. Decathalon.I’ve passed this on to my children as well.

As for me, I was so inspired by the athletes that I wanted to run, too. I wanted to jump and leap. Back then—and I know I’m dating myself here—schools were not required to provide the same sports opportunities for girls as they did for boys. There was no girls’ track team in Abington. But Dad encouraged me anyway. I remember him measuring my jumps in our yard. Telling me to run as fast as I can to win playground races. Before it was the thing to do, way before it became common for fathers to tell their daughters to strive for the finish line—or push themselves to go just a little further—my dad told me I could.

And while I never did become an Olympic athlete, and Abington High School finally had a girls track team—a little too late for me—I kept a lesson from my dad’s support. It is one of the reasons I blog, one of the reasons I write.

My dad taught me that I could. 

Calvin the cat wants to do figure skating in the Olympics

During the recent winter Olympics, my dad and I talked about the different events. My children have learned to love the Olympics too. And my cats as well. Here’s Calvin trying to imitate a Russian figure skater.

Cat wants to be an Olympic figure skater

And Elsa Clair is ready to replace this skater’s partner…

The importance of Science Education

Education was extremely important to my father. When there was a push to get grants for his department at Temple, my dad didn’t look for research money. Instead, he applied for — and won — a grant from National Institutes of Health to promote science education.  With that money, he brought  Philadelphia area teachers to Temple University School of Medicine, teamed each of them up with a researcher, and developed science laboratory modules to take back to their schools.

But that wasn’t enough. When the grant money ran out, my dad was awarded a prestigious Howard Hughes grant that allowed him to help the original teachers train additional teachers in the most successful modules. He disseminated science in much the same way that microbes multiplied and spread.

My dad also wanted to make sure that everyone had a chance to strive for — and achieve — their goals in the sciences. He received a grant from the NIH to provide a year of supplemental studies for students who might not have had rigorous enough background or education to qualify for graduate school.

It might not seem like much to those who aren’t familiar with the political machinations of academia, but my dad found a way to fund science literacy into the schools, reaching children of all ages and backgrounds.

My dad was always learning, always reading his scientific journals — up until the day he fell.

But that’s not all. A steady stream of magazines was delivered to our house every week. Newsweek. National Geographic. Smithsonian. Natural History. These were my dad’s subscriptions, but once I learned to read, I devoured these magazines. In their pages, I learned about archaeology, sociology, biology, astronomy. I met Richard Leakey. Stephen Jay Gould. Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Jane Goodall. Jacques Cousteau.Through their pages, I traveled to Papua New Guinea, to the depths of the ocean, to the moon.

My dad taught me to never stop learning. I still subscribe to those same magazines.

Aaron Norm reading magic school bus book

Grandpa Norm reading Magic School Bus with Aaron. A science-based book. Of course.

Norm lecture ASM 2002

My dad giving a lecture when he was honored by the local chapter of the American Society for Microbiology.

Norm Bev rocking chair Mohonk

Dad and Mom relaxing at Mohonk Mountain House. My dad is reading a journal; a copy of Travel and Leisure is next to him.

For a short while after he fell, but before he collapsed into himself like a dying star, I was still able to communicate with my dad. On one visit, before I left, I told him, like I always do, “I love you, Dad.” And he said, using words that up until then had been muddled, “Love you too.”

I will miss my dad. All of us will miss him.

Buddy Norm 8 x 10

My dad (on the right) and his younger brother Bernard (Buddy).

Norm Aaron Corinne graduation

My parents as Aaron graduates from high school and Corinne graduates from the School of Visual Arts. While my daughter majored in filmmaking, her grandfather supported her dream fully, supporting her efforts and watching every film. Aaron’s goal is to study theoretical physics, something my dad said was a subject that he personally struggled with. Aaron wants to study elemental particles — once again, the smallest bits of life, but from a physics point of view. My dad was very proud of his grandkids.

My dad and I.

My dad and I. The first time he saw the shirt I was wearing, he immediately recognized it from my blog.

Norm Dad Corinne Aaron dogs under table deck

Corinne and Aaron (and Jasper and Lilah) under the table visiting with their grandparents. (Grandma is behind Aaron.)

Norm and Tucker

Dad and Tucker, whom he used to say reminded him of his Airedale, Ruby.

Best spot for a dog to hang out? Under the table.

Lilah loved to hang out near my dad. He wasn’t the neatest of eaters, and she knew that.

Lilah keeps my Dad company

But she also just liked to hang out and keep my dad company.

Norm says No to Jasper outside table

Dad was probably telling Jasper that he was not going to be fed from the table. Jasper understood; it was a house rule and my dad knew to follow it.

Jasper and Lilah visit with their grandpa.

Jasper and Lilah visit with their grandpa.

Norm and Bev Willett riding in a pedicab in New York City.

Tucker climbed up on the couch to give kisses to his grandpa.

I have almost no pictures of my dad with the cats — just the one I posted yesterday for Black and White Sunday. The cats rarely sat still long enough to visit, let alone allow me to take a picture. Here’s a color version of yesterday’s photo.

Calvin gently sniffing my dad's hand.

My dad reaching out to Calvin.

One last photo — one I cannot take credit for. An unnamed photographer who took pictures for a New Jersey magazine decades ago, captured this moment with my Dad and his younger brother — and their dog Ruby — on the road near their home.

Circa 1936

Ruby, waiting.

I like to think Ruby waited like that for Dad, just up the road a bit. And they walked on together.

28 Comments on "Eulogy for my father, Dr. Norman P. Willett"

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  1. slimdoggy says:

    Thank you for sharing this. What a loving memory of your dad. He sounds like not only a good dad, but a fun dad – the best combination.

  2. easy rider says:

    your dad was a wonderful dad and I’m so sorry that he had to go. Many thanks for sharing so much memories with me.

  3. Emma says:

    What a great tribute full of memories and stories, and great photos. Mom lost her dad almost 14 yrs ago, so she knows how hard it is. He will be in your thoughts and pop into your mind forever.

  4. da tabbies o trout towne says:

    awesome tribute to your dad Susan, dad would be…and is….proud of this eulogy to him…thanx for sharing his life as well as that of your family; I enjoyed reading this… ♥ laura

    p.s. tell Aaron his grandpa may have struggled with theoretical physics but he’s still 100 steps ahead of me, because I don’t even know what it is !! ♥

  5. What a beautiful tribute. Your dad sounds like an amazing person, and a fantastic dad. Love all the photos. I’m so sorry for your loss. Sending virtual hugs from me and Rita.

  6. Brian Frum says:

    We too are glad you shared such a loving tribute. We felt as if we actually knew him. Hugs from all of us.

  7. Your last sentence brought me to tears. What a beautiful tribute to remember your dad. He seems like he was such a great man…and those photographs he took – wow! I am thinking of you and your family <3

  8. meowmeowmans says:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful and loving tribute to your dad. What an incredible life he led, and what an impact he made on the many whose lives he touched. Sending purrs, prayers and all good thoughts to you and your family.

  9. What a beautiful tribute! You dad sounds like an amazing person. Thank you for sharing these special memories. Sending you lots of hugs and love during this difficult time.

  10. Tamago says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss of your dad. He sounds such a wonderful dad.
    Thank you for sharing your precious memories. Such a beautiful tribute for him.
    Sending warm thoughts and prayers to you.

  11. That a wonderful, loving tribute. Thank you for sharing this with us. I’m sorry for your loss, and am sending warm thoughts to you.

  12. Jen Gabbard says:

    That’s such a lovely tribute. I don’t have the words to describe how intimate and touching it is. He sounds like a wonderful man who touched so many lives, I’m so sorry for your loss. Stunning photos as well.

  13. Sandy says:

    What a beautiful tribute – and you are so fortunate to have had such a loving and supportive dad. I am so sorry for your loss, but I am glad you shared so much together and I know he wil live on in your heart. Take care.
    p.s. I laughed out loud reading about the petri dish experiment and how all of you now flush the toilets with your feet!

  14. Marie says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your dad! Sorry for your loss.

    I lost my dad exactly four years ago today.

    Hugs xx

  15. Kitties Blue says:

    Susan, what a heartfelt memorial for your dad. Your relationship with your dad was so special. Please accept my condolences and sympathy at this very sad time for you and your family. Hugs and love, Janet

  16. Dawn says:

    What a wonderful and interesting man. You are very blessed. I’m sorry to hear about his passing. prayers to you and your family.

  17. Rebekah says:

    What a beautiful tribute. I am so very sorry for your loss.

  18. What a beautiful tribute, an amazing memorial of someone who clearly made a great impression on the world! I’m so sorry for your loss,

    wags to all,

    Your pal Snoopy 🙂

  19. What a wonderful tribute to an amazing man. I know he’s proud of the woman you’ve become. And BTW-I always wash my hands.

  20. Layla says:

    Susan, I’ve not been blog hopping much I just came across your euothogy/tribute. I’m so sorry for your loss. Your dad was a remarkable man and it’s clear you inherited many talents from him. Will I see you at the conf. in Atlanta? I can’t find your email.

  21. Beverly Willett says:

    That was so meaningful!

  22. Renee Scott says:

    I will never forget the experiences working as Dr Willett’s secretary. He was always the story teller. Also like a dad to me. I will always love him.

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