Unspoken Words by
(19 Stories)

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LTJG. W.J. Willis

My dad and I shared the same name of William James Willis (he was the junior and I was the third), and we both were in the Navy, but since his passing I’ve realized how much more of an identity we have shared.

A dad's teachings can come in a simple gesture of kindness.

Although Dad was in the communication business, as am I,  he wasn’t much of a talker, at least when it came to handing out life lessons. But his actions have come to speak loudly to me. I suppose my own two sons would say the same about me, and therein lies another similarity.

In several nonverbal ways, Dad taught me that actions do speak louder than words.

An indelible image

Dad was a kind man who sacrificed for my sister C.J. and me, and he also had this habit of being kind to strangers in times of stress. One image stands out in my mind more than any other I can easily recall about Dad, and I recounted it when I spoke at his funeral.

It was on a hot summer day in Oklahoma and Dad had taken Mom, C.J. and me to the local Dairy Queen. Outings like this didn’t come everyday for our family, because this was a time earlier in his career when money was tight around our house.

We had all placed our orders and were already enjoying them at a picnic table as Dad waited to pay at the DQ window. As he was walking over to us, a little boy who had just bought his own double-dip cone tripped on the way to his bike. Both he and his cone hit the pavement at the same time, the ice cream starting to melt instantly on the hot blacktop.

To the rescue

The boy began to cry over his lost treat. Dad saw and heard the whole thing, and went over to help him up. Then he turned back to the window to place another order.  “One double-dip cone, please,” he told the attendant. He laid down the last of his money, got the cone and immediately took it over to the young boy who had gotten up and was drying his tears.

The boy’s expression turned to a broad, cheek-to-cheek grin as he began downing his new cone. Dad just came over to our table, sat down, and ate his treat in silence.

I don’t know that I was ever more impressed with my father than that day.

A life lesson

It would take me a long time to realize what that single moment in time taught me: that a father could teach his son the biggest lessons in life when he doesn’t realize that son is watching, nor does the observed act have to be monumental or dramatic to have it’s effect.  Dad was every bit the hero to me for simply helping a kid he didn’t know.

Such lessons don’t  take preaching or planned, articulate lessons. In fact, I only remember one such planned verbal encounter with Dad.

Birds, bees, & the Benner

It came when I was 21 in June when Dad was driving me to Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, where I was catching a plane for Los Angeles where I was to join my Naval destroyer, the USS Benner. This talk had been weighing on Dad’s mind, I could tell, because he seemed distracted on the 30-minute drive and only broached the subject as we neared the airport gates.

“Son,” he began, “You’re headed to the Navy and will be in a lot of seaports. Just remember that there are two kinds of women in this world, and you want to make sure you don’t get mixed up with the wrong kind.”

“Thanks, Dad,” I responded. “I will remember that.”

What I didn’t say is that I’d already figured that much out, and that I’d already met both kinds, and a couple others that Dad failed to mention. But I appreciated his concern, and I knew it wasn’t an easy topic for him to raise, short as his speech was.

Over the decades since, that memory has always brought a smile to my face. The memory of Dad’s helping the kid at the Dairy Queen, however, has made me feel warm all over.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad, and thanks for the memories.


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."

Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Marian says:

    Jim, this is such a sweet and delightful tribute. I almost cried myself when that poor child lost his treat. Your father demonstrated empathy and a giving spirit. You are right, you learned more from that magnanimous gesture that any words could convey.

  2. Suzy says:

    Lovely story about your father buying a new cone for the little boy who dropped his. A good lesson about helping others, which stayed with you for a lifetime. Whereas his advice about women, which he thought was so important, was something you had already figured out for yourself.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thank you, Suzy. Couldn’t let Dad go without tribute, since I’d already written about Mom! It’s strange, but I felt much closer to Mom growing up, but now I feel Dad’s presence much more on a daily basis.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Your story perfectly illustrates that actions speak louder than words and that kindness and empathy are important qualities to emulate. Wish more people understood that these days.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thank you, Laurie. Your comment makes me realize how much politicians love words, but hate taking action for fear of alienating some voters. Words bespeak lofty ideas and hopes; actions express reality.

  4. Wonderful story Jim, after all these years , how thinking of that cold ice cream still made you warm all over.
    My dad too taught more by his examples than by his words.

    And funny about those birds-and- bees conversations, how many generations of kids only half-listened to stuff they already knew?
    Have to ask my husband if he ever had that talk with our son, don’t think so!

  5. A very powerful tribute to your Dad. Well done and much appreciated.

  6. Susan Bennet says:

    Lovely story, Jim. Your association of your father’s quiet gesture with his Navy experience, i.e., in his seeking no fanfare for his kindness, is insightful. Non sibi sed patriae.

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    With two anecdotes, you perfectly portray your father. Observing your father help the little boy who lost his ice cream cone spoke volumes to you about selflessness and empathy. It has become more impactful as you’ve become a father.

    The other story is sweet in its own way, though, as you point out, you already knew what your father tried to teach. Yet, you appreciated the outreach.

    Though our mothers may raise us, our fathers loom larger as we mature. I think that’s an interesting point, Jim.

  8. Khati Hendry says:

    It’s almost scary how much kids see and remember—the good and the bad. The ice cream cone is not just a wonderful (and wonderfully told) story, but a good reminder that we set examples in all that we do, especially for our kids. Your dad set a great example. And has become more treasured over time.

  9. Dave Ventre says:

    Your Dad taught, and lived, what I have come to think is the most important lesson of all; kindness.

    Your father got farther along the B&B talk than did mine, who never once broached the subject. He simply could not. Mom finally gave me The Talk, and was visibly relieved when I corrected her on a couple of biological facts, thus demonstrating that I already knew and she could stop.

    Thanks for the delightful anecdotes.

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