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The late Prof. Terry Willett was one of those larger-than-life characters whom students and colleagues never forgot, whether they knew him before or after his last extraordinary transformation, at age 80.
If, as the poet Goethe once said, “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it,” then the late Terry Willett was most certainly possessed of a remarkable degree of boldness. The Professor Emeritus (Sociology), who died March 4 in Kingston at the age of 93, lived a life of bold, constant, and remarkable reinvention.
Born in 1918 in England, he was, by turns, a member of a British Cavalry Unit, a WWII artillery gunner, a commissioned army officer, a helicopter pilot, and a decorated war pilot.
After surviving the 1940 evacuation of British and allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, Willett went on to serve at postings in the U.K., France, Sicily, Salerno in Italy, Palestine, North Africa, and Kenya, where in December 1942, he married an American woman named Freddie, and after four years there they returned to England. Willett then embarked on an academic career, teaching at Sandhurst Military Academy and earning a PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
He came to Queen’s in 1970. As a “military sociologist,” Willett often swam against the current, but he published and traveled widely until his retirement in 1983. After the 1994 death of his wife of 52 years, Willett embarked on another new phase of life – and perhaps the most remarkable one.
In 1998, he underwent gender reassignment surgery in Montreal. At 80 years of age, Willett is thought to have been the oldest person ever to have a sex-change operation. In her final years, Willett became a Quaker and embraced the Quaker tenet of pacifism, despite having had a long military career and a subsequent career as a military sociologist.
Willett’s life was rich in many ways. Terry Willett had always had a keen intellect, never worried about what other people thought of him, and he could be very authoritative, tough even, and sometimes extremely militaristic. He was opinionated, but also was fascinated with the opinions of others. He attracted and befriended a multitude of people from all walks of life, from the military, from academia, and from the community. He always enjoyed a good party, stimulating conversation, and good books. None of that changed during or after his transition to being a woman.
The Willetts travelled widely, and had a long and successful marriage that was blessed with two children. Mark Willett is an accomplished artist, while Sue Lyons, Artsci’83, a former magistrate, is now a practising psychotherapist. She lives in England with her entrepreneur husband, David Lyons, Law’81.
Sue remembers the childhood move to Canada, the lively life they had here, and her father’s passionate and inquisitive nature about so many things. Amongst those passions, Willett loved cars. Sue relates a story about a dinner at Aunt Lucy’s Restaurant, not long after their arrival in Kingston. Her father left the table between courses and was gone a long time. When he returned, he was bursting with excitement. Between the main course and dessert he had run out to the automobile dealership next door and purchased a “big, shiny, brand-new North American car,” and he was ecstatic.
There was also a restless side to Terry Willett, one that drove him onwards, always questing after something. Sue remembers her father asking her when she was about eight, “How do you really know who you are?” That hauntingly poignant, existential question stayed with Sue ever after, and it must have been in the back of Terry Willett’s mind for a very long time before he made the decision to undergo transgender reassignment.
Sandy Cotton, who is a former Adjunct Professor (Business) and was Terry’s close friend and collaborator, recalls a phone call after Freddie died. Willett said, “I have something serious I want to tell you over dinner.” Sandy and his wife were worried that Terry was ill. They waited patiently through dinner until he brought out some photographs of himself dressed as a woman. He told them he was planning to undergo gender reassignment. Sandy recalls, “I was so relieved that it wasn’t cancer or a serious illness that [his announcement] seemed easy to accept.”
“Terry was a character, an actress. She adored making presentations of any kind. She never failed to surprise. And yet, she was very honest and absolutely real.”
Of Willett’s gender transformation, Cotton says, “Terry was an elegant man, and also an elegant woman. Her qualities were enduring – still a gracious host with a huge capacity for friendship. But most of all, Terry was courageous and full of life – a true groundbreaker who broke down all kinds of barriers.”
Bob Pike, the retired head of the Sociology Department, also knew Willett for many years. He recalls when Willett first arrived in Canada, ahead of his family. It was a freezing cold day in mid-winter, and Pike went to visit him at his downtown hotel. Together they warmed up over a bottle of “very good Scotch.” Willett confided in Pike early on, and Pike watched from the sidelines as Willett sometimes struggled with emotions as he contemplated gender issues. Pike was not surprised to learn that Willett had finally decided to go ahead with his transformation. “Terry was a stylish woman – a magnificent fusion of 1960s Dior fashion and military knowledge,” Pike says with a knowing smile.
Not everyone found accepting the change so easy, but most of Terry’s closest friends stayed the course.
One of them, Caroline Miller, recalls meeting Willett when she joined the Sociology Department as a new faculty member in 1973. Willett was then Department Head. “Terry was not the easiest department head [to work with],” she recalls. Nonetheless, Miller was at Willett’s side on the train back from Montreal in 1998 following the gender-change surgery. After Caroline’s retirement and subsequent move to Victoria, Terry visited Caroline each winter. The two were close friends to the very end.
“Terry was a character, an actress,” says Miller. “She adored making presentations of any kind. She never failed to surprise. And yet, she was very honest and absolutely real.”
Perhaps Terry Willett’s extraordinary life can be summed up with an anecdote from the Quaker memorial service held in her honour. At a reception for a German army general visiting the Royal Military College, Willett and the General crossed paths, a friend recounted. “The pair became engaged in a long, intense discussion about military history. Not knowing anything at all about Terry, when the conversation concluded, the General walked away, shaking his head in admiration and saying to all present in his thick German accent, ‘Now, that’s one helluva woman!’”
Regardless of gender, Willett was first and foremost a profoundly bold and courageous human being, one who chose to live fully and with great personal integrity. Terry Willett’s deep and lasting impact will live on in many ways, especially in those who were lucky enough to have known her.