Tim and Ann Willis got married on July 7, 2007, because “we have rotten memories and that is a date we can both remember.”
They were introduced by mutual friends, Tedd and Rymmel Lovell, who thought their personalities would mesh well.
They were right, say the Willises.
“Rymmel kept asking, ‘Do you want to date? Do you want to go out to dinner with somebody? I know the woman that you would hit it off with,” said Tim, now 54.
He met the Lovells after moving to The Dalles 14 years ago and getting involved with United Church of Christ.
Tim had been married before and wasn’t really interested in pursuing another serious relationship. He had a daughter to care about and was comfortable living alone.
“I had my truck, I had my dog and I had my house,” he said.
Ann (Ross), now 60, had been in The Dalles for 25 years at the time and was widowed in 2002 with one child still at home. She was trusting God to bring someone into her life at the right time. She agreed to meet Tim at the Lovell’s for dinner as an informal “double date.”
“I got stood up,” said Tim of that evening in 2006.
“He likes to say that, but I was sick, so it’s not true,” said Ann.
After she begged off to recover from the flu, Tim went ahead with the visit to the Lovells, where he learned more about the woman they wanted him to meet.
Ann was a full-time homemaker and community volunteer at the time. She also rescued greyhounds and had seven at her home. They shared the same faith.
Intrigued despite his initial trepidation, Tim began looking forward to meeting Ann.
Their first date was at a Bunco game, which he thought was perfect because it was a non-pressure situation.
“We got to see how each other’s personalities worked,” he said.
He was thrilled when Ann called a few nights later to invite him to dinner at her house.
“One of the things I really found attractive about her was that she was a dog lover,” he said.
“I really liked his spirit. You could tell that he was a genuine person,” Ann said of that dinner, which was the true start of their relationship.
“He loved God and that’s what really drew me.”
She added: “And he wasn’t put off by all the dogs, which was nice.”
“No, it was just the cat,” grinned Tim.
As their courtship went on, Ann and Tim were shocked to find that some of the people in their lives objected to their ethnic differences. She is white, and he is black.
In reality, Tim is biracial because his mother was white and his father black.
“We don’t see color, so it never mattered,” said Ann.
Growing up in Ohio during a time when America didn’t accept mixed-race couples was not as tough as it might have been with a different set of parents, said Tim.
Their family of five children was shielded from hatred and prejudice because his parents surrounded them with people who were empowering and accepting.
“My mother and father got married in 1941 in Columbus, Ohio, when it wasn’t the thing to do,” said Tim. “My father was from the South and if they had settled there, he would have been killed, but in Ohio there were more people who were accepting.”
At that time, a marriage between blacks and whites was illegal in the South.
Both of his parents were educated, something they drilled into their children as necessary to carve out a meaningful life.
His father, Robert, had been born outside Atlanta, Ga., to a Baptist minister. He went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York to earn his bachelor’s degree, and then obtained his master’s in Metallurgy at Ohio State University before becoming a welder.
He was a decade older than his bride, Patricia, who was an English Literature student at the university.
“They had a lot of problems with their families,” said Tim of their decision to marry. “Not only that, my mother was Catholic and my father Baptist, so her church wouldn’t recognize the marriage — however, they agreed to let my mother keep playing the organ every Sunday.”
The children went to church with their mother while their dad worshipped at his church.
The children also attended Catholic schools where studies and discipline were rigid, and Tim said he still tenses up every time he meets a nun.
Patricia had been very close to her family but found herself estranged from some members by her choice of a husband.
“She understood the sacrifices she was going to have to make for him and she was willing,” said Tim.
He is proud of his parents for being pioneers for diversity and equality. “I think my parents’ Christianity superseded the stupidity of the times,” he said.
His mother had a determined spirit that saw problems as challenges to overcome. On the rare occasions when his father became riled up, there was hell to pay, said Tim, but his mother understood the pain in her husband’s soul and soothed it with her love.
“My parents’ strong faith nurtured their relationship through a lot of hard times,” he said.
It was a constant fight for Robert to maintain his employment in an industry where people of color were a rarity — and the first to be laid off when staffing cutbacks were called for.
His mother spent a lot of time with the Amish and Quakers, who helped slaves escape to free states in the 19th century through what was known as the “underground railroad,” a network of secret routes and safe houses.
Tim said his parents welcomed new experiences and their home was filled with guests from exotic places who gave their children a global perspective. One of his favorite memories is of his mother being given a lesson by women from India about how to properly drape and tie a sari. The South Asian garment has five to nine yards of material that wraps around a woman’s body.
“My parents were very pronounced individuals, not arrogant, but had a presence about them. They were very confident in their abilities,” said Tim.
He was the baby of the family, with a 20-year span between his eldest brother and himself.
“I was the ‘Guess What?’ baby,” he chuckled.
The need for education was drilled into the Willis children by their father. Their mother set the example by earning her doctorate at the age of 53.
“I was born to succeed. I didn’t have a choice,” Tim said.
He is the only one of his siblings who does not hold either a master’s degree or doctorate. He earned a bachelor of science in business and accounting from Ohio State University.
Tim was faced with the harsh realities of racism when he didn’t conform to the angry black activist culture at the university.
“I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder, the edge, the anger, the suffering,” he said. “So, I was ostracized, and I had to learn to walk my own path.”
He didn’t participate in sports in college, so he had to rely on getting high marks to earn grants and scholarships that funded his education.
He also worked while attending classes and is proud to have graduated with no student loans or debt.
“I think that would be very unrealistic today,” he said. After Tim took a job as a regional service manager for Sears in the Midwest, he learned that the tentacles of racism extended far into the corporate world.
One day he overheard two of his district managers talking about how he shouldn’t be in a management position because he was black, and their plans to undermine him.
He decided the matter needed to be dealt with immediately. So, while Tim was driving the three of them to a conference, he pulled over along the roadway, removed the keys from the ignition and then broached the issue.
“I told them that they were at a fork in the road. I told them that I could fire them immediately or they could choose to work with me,” he said.
His colleagues chose to remain on the job and, although they worked well together, Tim said it was difficult for him to trust them.
“There are different ways to destroy people,” he said. “You can lynch somebody without a rope.”
When Tim decided to relocate to The Dalles for a job opportunity, he had some trepidation since Oregon had a well-known history of racism.
Oregon was granted statehood in 1859 and was the only state in the Union with a constitution that forbade black people from living, working or owning property there.
Tim is currently the pastor of Wy’East Community Church in Odell and chaplain for Anderson’s Tribute Center in The Dalles, as well as the celebrant for families wanting a non-religious service.
“Christ wasn’t concerned about your ethnicity; he was concerned about your heart,” said Tim of his ministry.
What was shocking about marrying Ann, he said, was how many of his black friends condemned his choice.
“That helped me realize there is ignorance on both sides of the fence,” he said. “They were passing judgement on her and they had never met her. So, what did I do? Tipped my hat and walked away.”
He found it interesting that his mother had been going to name him “Ann Marie” if he was a girl. Forty years later, she got her Ann Marie in the form of a daughter-in-law, even though she was deceased and they would never meet.
“Everything falls together for God’s glory,” he said.
Ann said her family, including her late husband’s parents, have been very welcoming of Tim.
She acknowledges that if her grandmothers were still alive, there would have been more problems in her family about an interracial marriage.
Ann describes her relationship with Tim as very comfortable and easy. They enjoy travelling and sharing adventures, or puttering around the house with their two dogs, Leo, a Labradoodle, and Gustav, a standard Poodle.
The black population in The Dalles is small — Tim figures it at less than 50 people. He has been called the “N” word a few times over the years and said that sometimes he cannot tell whether he is receiving bad service at a business or whether the person waiting on him is racist.
“I cover them with kindness and then walk away — and I just don’t go back,” he said of these situations.
Despite occasional problems tied to his race, Tim said life in The Dalles is mostly peaceful.
“For the most part, people have been pretty good here,” said Ann. “We’ve run into a couple of things, but nothing major.”
He watches deepening racial tensions across the U.S. and feels saddened that the country appears to be moving backward instead of forward.
“I think there are a lot of systems that need to be corrected and a lot of healing that needs to take place in this country,” he said.
Ann said being with Tim has been eye-opening and troubling.
“I grew up near Los Angeles and I didn’t experience any of this,” she said.
“When I look at this man, my husband whom I love dearly, and I hear what he’s gone through and learn more of his backstory, it makes me really angry.”
Although Tim seems relaxed about being a minority in the Gorge, Ann noted that, during a trip to Puerto Rico, he was less guarded and more at ease. She figured out that it was because he looked just like everyone else they met.
“It was really nice as long as I didn’t open my mouth and try to speak Spanish,” he said.
His sister married a white man and they have spent 35 happy years together, so the acceptance of his family for relationships based on love and not color continues, said Tim.
Ann said her children have developed good relationships with Tim. Her son especially enjoys shooting with him.
“You know you’ve done something right when the child says you are a good fit for the mother,” said Tim.
He stood as the father of the groom when his step-son got married and held their first child in his arms during the blessing and anointing that followed her birth.
“I’m holding that baby and crying like a baby,” Tim said.
He and Ann believe their marriage has been so good because they avoided all the trials and tribulations of a younger couple.
“We knew what not to do again,” he said.
In addition, their spirituality built a strong framework during a courtship that sought to honor God.
“Both of us understood our role as a husband and wife so there wasn’t any question,” he said.
Tim credits Ann with being “level,” which creates a stable base for their relationship. She said his kindness and appreciation for everything she does keeps their love going strong.
They now have three grandchildren in their blended family and life at home is all that they hoped it would be almost 11 years ago.
“She is the greatest blessing that I’ve had in my life,” Tim said.