Inducted: November 12th, 2013
Hilda Jean (Nixon) Willson was born on February 4th, 1911 in Sprucedale, Ontario, daughter of Hilton and Helen Nixon. Jean had two sisters, Helen (Wise) and Margaret (Feagan) and one brother, Jack.
She entered the University of Western Ontario at the age of 16, and graduated at the age of 20 with honours in both Greek and Latin. On leaving University, Jean moved to Ridgetown and began teaching at the Ridgetown Collegiate Institute, at the age of 21. Her teaching career was interrupted when she married her husband, Harold in 1938.
Harold was born in 1910 in Howard Township, son of John Herbert Willson and the former Flora May Hunter. The farm, known as “Sprucehurst”, was located on Highway 21 at the curve approach to Ridgetown, and had been in the Willson family since the 1830s. Harold had 5 brothers, Donald, Benjamin, Alan, William, and David, and one sister, Agnes.
The Willson’s owned and operated Willson’s Dairy. Harold, who was also called “Buck”, was very interested in bowling, and sometimes when he was supposed to deliver milk to the bowling alley, he would be distracted and play a game. He was known to bowl a perfect score. Harold was good at sports. In later years, he golfed and curled.
After attending local schools, Reeders School and Ridgetown Collegiate Institute, Harold attended O.A.C. in Guelph. Then he took over the family farm in 1935.
After Harold and Jean’s marriage in 1938, they continued to farm at Sprucehurst where they had a dairy herd and also grew tobacco.
Since Harold was very keenly interested in sports, and in particular baseball, Harold and Jean travelled to the United States where Harold was a professional umpire and worked his way up in the minors to triple “A” southern association competition.
According to a niece, Suzanne, “When their farm was expropriated for the Experimental Farm, around the time the Western Ontario Agricultural School was to open, Harold and Jean returned from the States.”
When the Ridgetown College opened in 1951, its Director, Professor J.C. Steckley, asked Jean to be a part time English Teacher, and a year later, Harold, came on staff as Dean of Men and Athletic Director. Jean then became a full time staff member, and eventually Head of the English and Civics and Communications Department. Following her retirement in 1976, Jean kept in contact with the many graduates from the College.
Suzanne explained how they went around from farm to farm in Kent County drumming up students from skeptical farm families. Until then, the belief was that farmers farmed and others went to school. Obviously, a farm couple was more convincing than an academic to appeal to parents. In that first year, they met all the students on their own family farms.
The couple lived in the school residence, Steckley Hall, where they had an apartment on the second floor. They were always present at the head table for meals with the students and were affectionately called Mum and Pop Willson by the students. Over the years, they attended many weddings of former students.
Suzanne said that Jean had earned a Gold Medal in Latin and Greek. She was brilliant and could reach students. Being very clever, Jean made use of debates using subjects the students would use later on their farms. She used literature to make them aware and open to society. She focused on where the students were. Her classes were real and they were fun, not dry. She had great sensitivity.
Jean’s ability to instill a love for our language regularly had her judging public speaking and debating for Junior Farmers and other competitions. She was a member of the IODE, and on the committee involved with the building of the new Centennial Library in Ridgetown in 1962. She was the charter president of the Ridgetown Historical Society and was involved with the beginning of the Ridge Players.
A 1962 grad, Bill, said “WOAS hired Jean and she brought Harold along as Dean.” He added that he learned a lot from Mum and Pop Willson. He said that the students were often green farm kids who had never been away from home. Harold “knew where everyone was before they knew it.” He kept notorious students out of trouble. In those early years, students could not legally drink until age 21. If caught, they were suspended or expelled.
At dinner on the campus, the students had to dress in dress slacks, a jacket, a long sleeved shirt and a tie. Bill said that Harold taught him and others how to tie a square knot in his tie. Bill said that Mum and Pop influenced hundreds of young guys. They even went to fairs and the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto to promote the school.
Graduate Don, said that they were very sincere and a guiding light. He said that with the couple living in the dorms, the young students had someone with whom to talk over problems.
Another former student said of Harold, “We could confide in him and come away with a better understanding of our problems.” They were both well respected by all students. They encouraged careers and are sadly missed.
A longtime friend, Pauline, said that they, very quietly, would help out some of the students who could not pay their way. She said that few knew of that side of the generous and caring couple.
Harold and Jean were also a family towards those who worked at the School. It is said that Jean once explained, “We don’t need a family. Our family is here.”
Harold was also active in the community with Rotary, the Howard Masonic Lodge, and the Chatham Lodge; and the East Kent Memorial Arena Commission. He was also an elder in Erie Street United Church.
As former Agricultural Representative D. M. Rutherford said at the time of Harold’s passing in 1968, “It will never really be known the effect and direction Mr. Willson had on the lives of young people during their stay at the Agricultural College.”
Said Charlie Baldwin, a friend and co-worker of the Willsons – “They kept a close rein on the students. This was especially noted by the young men when they were going in and out of the residence. Harold had his office strategically placed just inside the main entrance of the dormitory. In the early years, the students had to surrender their vehicle keys to the Dean’s office when they returned from off campus.” Charlie adds – “mercy how times have changed”.
“In those early days of the 1950’s and 60’s…..the Willsons joined the students at meal times – so basically, their life and work was with the students 24 hours a day, almost 7 days a week while school was in session. When school was out, the Willsons, mainly Harold, were on the road throughout the counties of Southwestern Ontario, doing public relations for student recruitment.”
“The Willsons really were unofficial guidance counsellors.”
“In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Harold could often be seen umpiring fastball league games in Ridgetown and throughout Kent County. As to the umpiring jobs in the States, Charlie reports that Harold as umpire, was subject to “very vocal, abusive laden, angry fans most of whom were not drawing one sober breath….in grubby, dingy stadiums.”
“Truly, Mum and Pop Willson were an absolute, unequivocal god-send for our Agricultural School: compassionate, dedicated, and hardworking beyond measure. The agricultural community at large, through the WOAS graduates, continue to reap the benefits of their presence and wisdom throughout the early years of their education at Ridgetown.”
It was a team effort all the way; ask any graduate who had the good fortune of being at WOAS during the Willson years.”
The graduating class of 1967 unveiled a large portrait of “Pop” the year before he died and Willson Hall was named in his honour.
Jean died in 1981. Her portrait also hangs at the Ridgetown Campus of the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus as the former Western Ontario Agricultural School is now known.
We can only add that as a couple, the Willsons provided outstanding guidance for your agricultural leaders in the 1950’s and 1960’s.