Devoted coach, teacher knew the score and taught what counts in life

As a respected basketball coach and algebra, calculus and geometry teacher over three decades at the old Watson High School in Desha County, Anna Margaret Lee Willis knew the true value of a educator’s devotion to students — imparting discipline to and teaching a child to count will start them on a brighter path, but making the extra effort to relate the wisdom of what counts most in life will help them to ensure success for generations to follow.

Willis died Thursday, March 20, at Davis Nursing Home in Pine Bluff. She was 93.

Predictably, a tide of tributes from many of her former pupils followed.

Michael Rice, now the musical director at The American Conservatory Theater in New York City, posted his thoughts on Facebook, as did others.

“Today, I wish to acknowledge the life of my wonderful high school math, geometry and algebra teacher,” Rice said. “What a beautiful lady she was and a wonderful teacher. She was probably the best-dressed teacher to grace the Watson campus.”

Willis’ daughter — noted author and television personality Delta Willis — recalled her mother’s influence in a telephone interview.

“I know she wanted me to be successful,” Delta Willis, a New York resident, said of her mother. “She was so good about discipline. I remember as a coach she told us that we had to make our free throws. She called them gifts. She was teaching us about opportunities. That’s something I’ve remembered all these years.”

Besides coaching Watson’s girls basketball teams for several years, Margaret Willis was an avid swimmer and tennis player. Her basketball teams won some regional crowns.

Willis, also noted for her production of elementary school musical programs, was serious about the business of school and extracurricular activities, but knew the importance of laughter, too.

“She had an incredible sense of humor, an incredible wit,” said her daughter, who added that her mother began joking about aging as she approached her senior years and continuously exhibited the courage of laughing at one’s self.

Margaret Willis and her late husband of 64 years, Robert H. Willis Jr., had an affection for nature. The couple — who became sweethearts as ninth graders at the Watson school where they would later be selected as favorite teachers — fished often, both in nearby lakes and in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast.

Delta Willis inherited their passion for the outdoors, and is a recognized conservationist.

Valedictorian of her Harrisonburg, La., high school graduating class, Margaret Willis wound up earning a scholarship to Louisiana State University. She completed her education there in 1942. She soon married her husband and would become a mother in 1945 with the birth of a son, Robert H. Willis III, now retired in California after owning and operating an air service there.

A second son, Mickey Willis of Watson, is a retired farmer. And a granddaughter — Jennifer Willis — is a member of former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s exploratory presidential campaign staff.

Graveside services were conducted Sunday, March 23, at Watson Cemetery with Delta Willis officiating.