Those who knew her, and many did, said they could visualize Sidney Bell Willis singing in heaven’s choir, teaching angels how to enunciate properly and, most likely, championing others.
Willis, 76, who served as District 3 city councilwoman from 2002 until 2011, died Sunday surrounded by family after an extended illness.
“She was what I call a trailblazer for justice, for education and human rights,” said Kasha Williams, District 3 councilwoman. “Mrs. Willis was involved in so many things in the community.”
Before she represented south side neighborhoods on the City Council, Willis was an educator. When she ran for political office in 2002, she was a retired teacher of 43 years with Longview Independent School District.
Friends say she was a gifted musician, having served as music minister at St. Mark CME, for more than 20 years. She also taught piano lessons.
Williams described the woman she replaced on the City Council as “much more than a political mentor. She was a longtime friend of the family who always encouraged others.
“I have known Mrs. Willis all my life,” Williams said. “She probably knew me even before I was born. Our families shared a close, personal connection.”
Photo by LNJ, Michael Cavazos
Mayor Jay Dean remembered Willis fondly, calling her a “class act who would be missed by many.
“I worked with Mrs. Willis before being elected mayor,” Dean said. “We had some very good discussions — me representing Northwest Longview and her representing south Longview, and us looking out for our districts. It was not always pleasant, but we always had mutual respect. She was a fine, classy, Christian lady.”
Willis was dedicated to District 3. In 2005, when the Lilly Street area was ripped apart by numerous drive-by shootings, Willis confronted the issue head-on.
“Mrs. Willis got right out front real quick. We got the police, the ministerial alliance and neighbors involved,” Dean said. “Mrs. Willis contacted me, we started together the Unity and Community Project to try to go into the neighborhood with focus and prayer to bring people together,” Dean said.
She worked for the people of her district, always trying to improve drainage and streets.
City Manager David Willard said he was impressed with Willis from the first time he met her.
“She was on the Council that hired me in 2007, and she was always very helpful to me,” he said. “I will remember her as a very elegant, classy woman. She will be missed.”
Since her election in 2011 to the council seat Willis held, Williams said she often sought Willis’ advice.
“I could always call on her for any kind of advisement. Even outside of politics she was always there as a mentor and a friend. She was family,” Williams said. “She always guided me in my decision making. When she spoke, people would respond.”
While Willis spent most of her last years on the City Council, she never forgot her time in the classroom and never failed to promote the value of a good education.
“One of the things that set her apart was her focus on education. She was always very smart, very articulate,” Williams said.
Willis also was a member of the NAACP, and a recipient of the city’s Race Relations Committee Unity Award.
Willis was a member of Top Ladies of Distinction and the first Top Teens Advisor.
“She was a woman of high ethical character and caliber. She was willing to serve as a leader, as a catalyst of our community and those who knew her best, know that to be so,” Williams said.