Lillian Willoughby: A Tribute (1915–2009)

By Lynne Shivers

In 1972, a ship loaded with military supplies was bound for South Vietnam. But first it would stop at Leonardo, New Jersey, to take on more supplies. At Leonardo, canoes were tied together and temporarily prevented the ship from coming into port. When it did dock, people sat down on the train tracks that led out to the ship. Lillian Willoughby was arrested, and officers ordered people to hurry up to get into the bus. Lillian pointed a fi nger at one officer and said directly but calmly, “You don’t have to do this.” The officer stopped ordering people around.

In the months leading up to the third anniversary of the Iraq War in March, 2006, Lillian and other women shaved their hair publicly in front of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia as sign of warning and mourning. On the third anniversary itself, Lillian (in a wheelchair) and a dozen others blocked the entrance of the Federal Building in Philadelphia. A year later at the trial, Lillian chose to serve the seven-day jail term rather than pay the $250 fine. Because she was 89, she knew her actions would be carried by the world media, letting her communicate that not all Americans supported the war. She was right: friends sent clippings from papers in Asia, Africa, and Europe about her jail time.

Lillian felt strongly about not paying war taxes. In 1970, two IRS officials appeared outside the Willoughby house to seize the family Volkswagen. Lillian came out of the house, holding her briefcase full of meal plans. (She worked as a dietitian at hospitals and nursing homes in the region.) She said, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have to get to work!” She took off the sign the agents had placed on the windshield, got in the car, and drove away. Later, the IRS put the car up for auction. But the Willoughbys asked friends not to bid on the car, and Lillian and George were able to buy the car back. (A month ago, George told me that the IRS called this action “The Willoughby Principle” and did not auction off cars in the Philadelphia region for some years.)

Lillian made lifelong friends with people of different cultures and races, becoming an ally by fighting institutional and personal racism. She and George made numerous trips to India and other countries, especially in Southeast Asia. During one trip, Lillian joined several Indian women on a Gandhian walking tour through many villages.

In the 1950s, shortly after the Willoughby family moved from Iowa to southern New Jersey, Lillian was involved in fighting racism at the new housing development called Levittown. The group used what has become a familiar tactic by asking over the phone if housing was available. Then, when African-American families showed up, they were told no housing was available. The group eventually broke the racist policy.

Lillian had a finely tuned awareness of the emotional health of groups around her. When she felt they were headed for trouble, she often took an initiative that changed the direction the group was taking. One major incident took place in 1978 in Philadelphia at the first MOVE confrontation with the police. (MOVE is an African-American organization that challenges police and city racism.) A group of Quakers organized a round-the-clock vigil a block from the MOVE house, calling for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. After a shoot-out between the police and MOVE members, a large group gathered. People were scared and very angry. Lillian headed over to see what she could do. Before arriving, Lillian stopped to buy a large container of water and many paper cups. Then she simply went through the crowd, asking individuals if they would like some water. It was a hot day, and people always said yes. In this way, she was able to inject pleasant personal connections, and this slowly changed the entire atmosphere.

In 1992, Lillian decided to use a small inheritance to purchase about 35 acres of woods, meadow, and wetlands next to their Deptford, New Jersey, house. A small group created the Old Pine Farm Natural Lands Trust. In a town known for its sprawling mall, the land trust is valued for its open space and inspires people to think about maintaining natural land.

One of the most significant contributions Lillian made was to a co-found the Life Center, a social change community in West Philadelphia that lasted from 1971 to 1987. The Life Center became a place where people from around the country and abroad came for training programs in nonviolent action. The Life Center also made important contributions to the local community. The Town Watch program begun in 1972 was probably the first in Philadelphia.

Lillian Willoughby was a lifelong Quaker who applied her deeply felt pacifism to issues of nuclear war, racism, feminism, and the environment. She died at home on January 15. She and George were married for 68 years and had four children.

Lynne Shivers has been a friend of the Willoughbys for 50 years. She is a Quaker, a co-founder of the Life Center, and a writer.