Obituary: Ellen Connor Willard / Nurse who immersed herself in volunteer work

Nov. 9, 1923 - April 26, 2014

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Ellen Connor Willard spent part of World War II as a U.S. Army nurse, both in the European and Pacific theaters.

"She served on the Queen Mary and traveled all over, first taking troops to war, then taking care of the wounded ones on the way back," said her daughter, Nan Willard Cappo. "Her generation was tough, so afterwards, nothing seemed to faze my mom.

"Nothing could compare to the danger of being in World War II; nothing in peacetime suburbia was going to throw her for a loop."

Mrs. Willard had been living in Florida when she died of complications from pneumonia, but she left a lifetime of good deeds in the 44 years she lived and worked in Pittsburgh. She and her husband, Gradon, raised six children in Ross, and after the youngest finished school she went back to work as a nurse at St. Francis Hospital in Lawrenceville and Allegheny General.

"What we remember most vividly is all of her volunteer work with our church, St. Teresa's [of Avila]," Mrs. Cappo said. "She was in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, she helped on the committees to settle refugee families in the parish.

"There was no committee that helped people, physically, that my mom wasn't interested in."

The desire to serve came to Mrs. Willard early in life, when she aspired to become a doctor. According to her daughter, however, that wasn't supported by Mrs. Willard's father, who expected her instead to get a job after high school.

Nursing made sense, and she began looking up programs in the telephone book.

She found one -- at St. Joseph's Hospital in her hometown of Philadelphia -- that offered her a scholarship and only charged for the uniforms. For the $300 price of professional attire, she became a registered nurse.

Although she sailed to far-off places, it was on a trip back to the States where she met Mr. Willard, who was a lieutenant in the Navy. He was stationed in Norfolk, Va., and she was visiting New York City when they teamed to win a jitterbug contest at an officers dance.

After the war ended, he looked her up again and they married in 1946.

The travelling wasn't over. His new bride joined Mr. Willard, a chemical engineer, in his hometown of Corsicana, Texas, and eventually they would settle on raising their family in Ross. Gradon F. Willard died in 2007.

Mrs. Willard is survived by daughters Margaret Van Fossen of Ross, Mary Joan Willard of Mill Valley, Calif., Cathy Willard of Orlando, Fla., Nan Willard Cappo of Squirrel Hill and Beth Miller of Orlando; son James of Orlando; and sisters Mary Brandt of Philadelphia, Cathy Gilfillan of Alexandria, Va. and Margaret Peake of Salisbury, Md.

A Mass was celebrated at Annunciation Catholic Church in Altamonte Springs, Fla. last week, but a prayer service will be held Tuesday from 9 to 10 a.m. at T.B. Devlin Funeral Home, Perry Highway, Ross. It will be followed by burial in North Side Catholic Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, in care of St. Teresa Parish, 1000 Avila Court, Pittsburgh, PA 15237.


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478.

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