Obituary: The Rev. Jack P. Willard / Called away from engineering to serve church

April 14, 1934 - Nov. 23, 2013

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Jack Willard was a Purdue-educated engineer who loved his work at Alcoa in management and development. He and his wife had a comfortable home and were raising three sons.

But by his early 40s, he began to wonder if he was called to do more. He was getting increasingly inspired by his work at his church, teaching fellow members about the Bible and doing readings in services.

"All of a sudden he knew that he was supposed to go into the ministry," his wife, Mariolin "Mo" Willard, recalled on Wednesday. "He came home one day -- I had no clue -- and he said, 'I left Alcoa today.' "

She was at a loss for words at first, but the couple quickly adapted. She worked at a church as he completed an accelerated degree program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and launched a second career as a minister in churches in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

"He loved what he was doing," Mrs. Willard said. "His relationship with the Lord was very personal. You knew he really believed what he said and preached."

The Rev. Jack P. Willard, 79, of Richland, who brought a listening ear and a resonant voice to his ministry in Presbyterian churches, died Saturday of natural causes.

Rev. Willard "was just a terrific people person," said the Rev. Dean Weaver, lead pastor of Memorial Park Church, a Presbyterian congregation in McCandless where Rev. Willard worked, visiting the sick and ensuring that the church's senior members were not just objects of ministry but actively involved in it.

Rev. Weaver said that among Rev. Willard's most impressive legacies are his eloquent prayers -- planned out deliberately, keeping them in the theme of the service and sermon. While he wrote the prayers in advance rather than speaking extemporaneously, "they weren't any less heartfelt," Rev. Weaver said.

Rev. Willard was "absolutely a great father and great man," said his son, John Willard.

Mr. Willard said he was a teenager when his father left his job to go into the ministry -- too young to be "worrying about things like putting food on the table" during the transition, he said. But his father "made the change as seamless as possible," he said.

"It seemed like he did the right thing because he was very successful at it and absolutely loved it as a career," Mr. Willard said.

Rev. Willard was a Pittsburgh native and lifelong fan of the Pirates, for whom he had season tickets even during their long string of losing seasons, and he bonded with grandchildren in their many trips to the games. He had a particular fondness for recounting the exploits of vintage Pirates stars such as Ralph Kiner and Bill Mazeroski, his family said.

The New Kensington High School graduate met his wife at Purdue University in Indiana, where he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. Her father was an announcer at Purdue football games, and the couple bonded early over a love of sports. They were married for 56 years.

He went on to serve a term in the Army before returning home to work at Alcoa.

"Pittsburgh was in his blood," Mrs. Willard said.

As a lay teacher at church, "he loved Scripture and he wanted people to understand what Scripture really said, to see what it meant to them, not always to have an opinion because someone else told you something."

He earned his master of divinity degree at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1978. He was ordained at the First Presbyterian Church of Bakerstown, where he served as an associate under longtime pastor, the Rev. Richard Morledge, from whom he learned much about preaching and teaching.

Rev. Willard kept enduring relationships with both church and mentor: He later served as an interim pastor at Bakerstown, and the Rev. Morledge prayed over Rev. Willard during his final hours last week, Mrs. Willard said.

After his first tenure in Bakerstown, Rev. Willard served as pastor for several years at First Presbyterian Church of Hillsdale, Mich. He then returned to Pennsylvania, where he took posts at Westmont United Presbyterian Church in Johnstown and Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church before joining the staff at Memorial Park.

Rev. Willard took photos of Memorial Park's signature stained-glass windows and framed them for gifts to members who were in nursing homes or homebound. "Their eyes just lit up" when they received them, said the Rev. Kevin Gourley, a fellow Memorial Park associate pastor. It conveyed a feeling that their church "was with them."

Rev. Willard enjoyed being in Memorial Park's Men's Gospel Singers. His resonant voice "would carry the day," whether in a sermon, a prayer or in song, Rev. Gourley said.

But off the podium, "Jack was an incredibly good listener," Rev. Gourley added.

Mrs. Willard said her husband's deep faith took him through his biggest trials, including the loss of their youngest son, Patrick, to cancer at age 30.

"They're with each other" now, she said.

Rev. Willard had struggled in recent years with dementia, but his physical health took a quick turn for the worse last week and he was hospitalized for a few days before returning home for hospice care, Mrs. Willard said. Even in his final days, "we sang for the doctors," Mrs. Willard recalled. "We sang the old hymns."

He accepted his growing struggles with dementia "without screaming or yelling," she said. "He just lived it out to see what God had in store for him."

Rev. Willard is also survived by another son, James Willard; four grandchildren; and three grandchildren.

Memorial services will be held at 3 p.m. Dec. 7 in Memorial Park Church, 8800 Peebles Road, Allison Park. The family suggests donations to Hosanna Industries, 109 Rinard Lane, Rochester, PA 15074. Arrangements were by Schellhaas Funeral Home, Bakerstown.

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.


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