Mom’s mantra of making it work by
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Hazel M. Willis, the steel magnolia

Yesterday, after watching the 14th replay of the amazing Kentucky Derby where an 80-1 longshot named Rich Strike weaved, bobbed, and ultimately bounded his way from last to first, I thought about something my mom used to tell me a lot.

"Bad beginnings make for good endings, Son," was Mom's mantra to me. Of course you have to back it up with a stout resolve, and maybe a baseball bat.

“Bad beginnings make for good endings, Son.”

I know Mom was pulling from her own life experiences when she made those declarations. It wasn’t just an abstract concept to her.

The Roots of Determination

Mom’s mom was a loving woman named Cecelia who had also seen her ups and downs. She was divorced from a shady kind of character who Mom never talked about, in a time when you didn’t talk about divorce itself either.

Grandma Cecelia made the best of what was left for her and her two daughters, and she had this whimsical impulsive streak that sometimes got her into trouble and made the family finances shaky. Like the time she bought a snazzy and pricey new car right off the auto show platform, even though she didn’t drive. Or the time she won a jackpot, then lost it.

I trace my own impulsiveness (remember Star from my last story?) to the tree branch named Cecelia. I mean, we gotta blame somebody for our flaws, right?

Through it all and because of her rock-solid determination, Mom landed on her feet in life. She did it again, and again, and again, even threatening to defy gravity and live forever. She almost made it, if you count her 103 years as an effective protest of death.

Sit alone and talk, watch a hawk

In 1949, Dad moved us all from Columbus, Ohio, to Midwest City, Oklahoma, a town that had been an uninhabited wheat field seven years earlier. I was 3, C.J. was 5, and Mom faced the task of raising us in a small rented duplex with two bedrooms, driving a one-star used car whose tires needed filling three times a week.

Mom, surrounded by her students. I’m on the back row, second from the left.

Within a year, we moved to a three-bedroom brick home of our own and — a year after that — Mom had implemented a vision she’d had of starting a pre-school, which was not only Midwest City’s first, but also the first one with a structured curriculum in the entire area. She named it Jack & Jill Pre-school, after the nursery rhyme, and planted it in the back den of our already-small 1,200 square-foot home. It was a rough start, but it became a wonderful success.

The visionary

In Midwest City, Mom saw a town with a big Air Force Base (Tinker Field) and a burgeoning population with a lot of families and small kids. While some entrepreneurs might have just envisioned a day care center, Mom’s vision was greater.

She built a school that would be the first step of a structured educational journey that would take its students as far as they wanted to go. She planned Jack & Jill carefully, worked out a deal with Dowling’s (a major educational materials supplier in nearby Oklahoma City), hired two teachers, built the curriculum, did all the marketing and recruiting of students, bought a used “woody” station wagon, set up a pickup and delivery system for the students, and began teaching everything from spelling, to basic math, music, and art. Our backyard became the playground for recess, complete with all the climbing, sliding, and swinging paraphernalia.

If all that wasn’t enough, J&J had two stage productions each year, held at a local elementary school, and each year ended with a commencement program complete with caps, gowns, diplomas, and scrapbooks of students’ accumulated work.

My first teacher

My sister C.J. was already in first grade, but I became one of J&J’s first recruits, a reluctant student who would wind up staying in school through a Ph.D. program and ultimately making a career of higher education myself.

But I was only one of many success stories that came through Jack & Jill. My sister graduated from college as well, and went on to her own career in teaching and co-founded a thriving home school business after retiring. In fact, most of Mom’s students would go on to college and many wound up in professional careers. Over the years as I’ve gone back to town, I’ve kept bumping into former J&J alums. At Mom’s funeral a few years ago, four or five people came up to greet me and let me know they had been Mom’s students.

“Bad beginnings make for good endings, Son.”

Chapter 2

Nothing lasts forever, though, and in the late 1950s Mom received notice from the city stating that Jack & Jill was in violation of city zoning laws. Our street, Lockheed Drive, was not zoned for business, and some neighbor had made a complaint. Mom could have fought it and won, but she felt it was time she devoted more time to her own kids, so she closed the school voluntarily, much to the dismay of many families in town.

I remember those two years when Mom was unemployed and doted on C.J. and me, probably spoiling us in the process but happily so. I recall my pastor saying once, “Isn’t it about time we realized that the best gift we can give is time?” I know Mom knew that, and she acted on it.

Mom and the Air Force

Still, Mom was a woman of action and a couple years later she was chasing a new venture: going to work for the Air Force. By this time, 1960, Midwest City had grown to about 40,000 residents, and Tinker Field was the largest military aircraft maintenance facility in the country with a huge payroll. Mom had worked for the government earlier in life, so that gave her an inside track to being hired, but she first had to take and pass an exhaustive Civil Service Exam, for which she would need to study long and hard. This she did over a period of months.

Sadly, she failed to pass the test. But again her determination and never-say-die spirit took over, and she took the test again. Same result. Once more into the breach, she passed it a month or so later on the third try.

Mom went to work at Tinker in the medical records division, and I remember the mammoth building she was ensconced in. It has the government-gray name of Building 3001, and was built to withstand a nuclear attack. How appropriate for Mom, I remember thinking, because that’s how she’s built, too.

Thus began Mom’s second career and, before it ended some 15 years later, she had risen in the ranks to a GS 13, the civilian equivalent of a Lieutenant Colonel on the military side.

“Bad beginnings make for good endings, Son.”

Mom, C.J., me, and Dad, circa 1995.

The cot and the bat

When she retired, Mom helped Dad co-found and run a series of galleries called Artisans 9 in Oklahoma City and Norman. She was so dedicated about keeping Dad’s artwork secure after hours, that she kept a cot and a baseball bat in the storeroom of one gallery and slept there on occasional nights to take a swing or two at any late-night thieves.

Did it matter that she was in her 80s and might not be able to finish what she started with the miscreants?

Hell, no.

After all, “Bad beginnings make for good endings, Son.”

Profile photo of Jim Willis Jim Willis
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."

Tags: strong women, mother's day
Characterizations: funny, moving, right on!, well written


  1. What a wonderful, strong. spunky and wise woman was your mom Jim!

    And how lucky you had her until age 103!

  2. Marian says:

    Jim, this is such a fascinating story about how your mother persisted in so many ways–in raising you, her commitment to education, and then government work. I’m a fan of her statement and really believe in it. Thanks for a picture of life in the midwest during the 1950s and 60s, an environment new to me.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thank you, Marian. I appreciate the opportunity Retrospect gives us to reflect on the past. I realize how much I had taken for granted and I have developed a new appreciation for my family just in writing about them and reliving those experiences.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    I hear what you say about taking the opportunity to reflect on the past, which includes appreciating some pretty amazing people we may see with new eyes in retrospect. Your mom sounds like a remarkable person (with incredible vision and energy). Clearly she made a lifelong impact on the J & J kids, and created successes in many venues. Lovely pictures too. Thanks for sharing her story.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thanks, Khati. Mom was nothing if not remarkable. Her success was not measured in financial wealth but in the determination to live the life she felt most comfortable living. She believed in a balanced life, which is what I think I’m on the threshold of achieving at 76. It’s taken awhile to get here.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Your mother does indeed sound like a fascinating woman, Jim. One who made up her mind and did not give up. That alone is a great lesson. To go from a nursery school teacher to a civil servant (with some time out to tend to the children), is an interesting leap, made even more so by having to pass that exam on the third try. I give her loads of credit for setting that example too.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thank you, Betsy. Mom certainly instilled some important lessons in me, and most of them were learned just by observing her. I know both she and Dad are inside me, and they balance each other well in some key ways.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Your mother was truly remarkable in her tenacity and strength to persevere, even if beginning wasn’t great. Her advice was sage. We can always make lemonade out of the lemons life hands us. Thanks for sharing her story.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thank you, Laurie. It’s fun to get back into writing with some regularity, because the memories come flooding back in more detail when I put my fingers to the keyboard. All the best to you this spring!

  6. Suzy says:

    Thanks for this inspirational story, Jim. And in light of your reply to Betsy’s comment, I will give you a heads-up that you will be able to write about what your father told you in a few weeks, for Father’s Day.

    • Jim Willis says:

      “Son,” Dad told me, “there are two kinds of women in this world …” And he waited until I was 21 and off to join my ship in the Navy before he revealed that. I was a little ahead of him, though, and I already knew it was a bit more complicated than that.

  7. John Shutkin says:

    At this point, Jim, I can only pile on the accolades. But I gladly do so. Your mother was truly remarkable and you have unfolded her story beautifully. Indeed, while I tend to be a pessimist about bad beginnings — having seen so many eople in holes just keep on digging — your mom’s mantra might just change my mind about that. She certainly lived it and passed it on.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thanks so much, John, for your kind words. We must have been reading each other’s stories at the same time because I just finished your well-told tale of your own mom. Do you think we grow to appreciate our moms’ advice more now that we are at (or past) the age they were when they handed down their latent pearls of wisdom? I know I find myself thinking more about what I’ve learned from both my parents which — in the final analysis — are the best gifts they could have given us.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    A very inspiring story of a memorable lady.
    My Mom was also an aggressive, take-no-prisoners person well ahead of her time. She accepted no limits other than those she herself set. It was on occasion exhausting. But it probably led me to prefer smart, self-assured women in my life.

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