By MIKE HUGHES, Prime Times
COLERAIN — Donald Paul Willison has lived what many would consider a full life.
He’s a former Technical Sergeant (TSgt.) and flight instructor with the United States Army Air Corps during World War II and a skilled carpenter, serving as a co-owner of the Bellaire Cabinet Shop with Gene Arno.
He was the husband of his beloved Dorothy, whom he married on Aug. 2, 1941, for more than 50 years before her passing in 1997. The two had three children, Cindy, Colleen and Todd
He is the father of three, the grandfather of seven, great-grandfather of five and the great-great-grandfather of one one-month old baby girl.
He family and friends gathered for a surprise celebration of that life in late August during a surprise celebration at the Sons of Italy in Bellaire. A few days later, Willison marked his 90th birthday on Sept. 2.
But the most fascinating thing about the man who has enough life experiences and memories for two people, is that he still keeps living it.
At an age where many have long since settled into the daily routines of retirement, Willison still gets up every morning, working to keep his mind and body functioning at an optimal level.
When asked his secret, Willison simply replied ‘‘Don’t quit.’’
A few times a week, Willison joins longtime friend John Moore, helping him build his house by Piedmont Lake near Freeport, Ohio.
At an age when many rely on public transportation or relatives to get around, Willison still drives. He’s as sharp as a tack with the mind of a master craftsman when it comes to working with wood.
And sometime today, Willison and his grandson Paul Hartlieb will be flying over the Akron/Canton area in a B-17 Flying Fortress, a gift from his family. It will mark the first time he’s been on a B-17 since 1946.
During the party, Willison was presented with a presidential plaque by retired U.S. Air Force Major Robert Scatterday. A fellow pilot, Scatterday remarked that Willison’s work helped improve pilot training immensely, noting that it ‘‘made my flying safer.’’
Today’s flight will be a relatively short one. But the flight time will add to the more than 3,300 flight hours Willison logged during his stint in the Army Air Corps during World War II and after, serving as a flight engineer.
Drafter a few months following the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, he made his way to Indiana for his initial placement.
‘‘I was just a kid and didn’t know anything about planes when I first got in We all had to take an (aptitude) test and mine must have been lucky enough to get into the air corps,’’ said Willison, recalling one of the first things he learned was the lyrics to the Air Corps’ and now the U.S. Air Force’s theme song.
He learned the ins and outs of the planes at mechanic school at Lincoln Army Airfield in Lincoln, Nebraska, now the Lincoln Air National Guard Base.
From there he made his way west to both Tucson and Mesa Arizona, serving a good bit of time at Williams Air Force Base near Mesa.
He learned to pilot both the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator planes used heavily by the military during World War II, but his main duty was as a flight engineer. A flight engineer near the innerworkings of the plane from nose to tail and assisted the pilots by monitoring the mechanical operation of the plane. Fires, fuel leaks, cable problems, when a situation arise, it was the engineers like Willison who were the first to respond.
He also spent plenty of time assisting trainees pilots and flight crews how to work and operate the B-17s.
They practiced transit flights and even simulated bombing runs, sometimes incorporating wooden models of tanks to use for target practice. He was well versed with the numerous 50 caliber machine guns the B-17 housed, including the twin 50s on the top turret, the flight engineer’s gun of responsibility during combat missions.
Willison graduated from Bellaire High School in 1939. His father was a carpenter so he got his love of working with wood honest. He started by working for a bank on the weekends, fixing up homes that had been foreclosed on and getting them ready for sale.
When he returned home in 1946, he got a job with Wheeling Steel in Martins Ferry, but lasted only a few weeks because ‘‘I couldn’t stand the smell.’’
He was then hired on by the now defunct Ohio Valley Lumber, its owner remembering Willison from his days working for the bank. He was first hired to work in the cabinet shop.
He stayed with OV Lumber until it went out of business in 1958.
Later on his when he started the Bellaire Cabinet Shop with Arno. But Willison’s handiwork wasn’t limited to just cabinets. He has built more than 40 homes during his career.
Willison loved his time in the military serving his country. And by he loved his craft as evident by the fact he still assists in home building three times a week.
But the part of his life he loved the most was being married to Dorothy, whom he calls his “little mommy” and his “angel.”
His home is adorned with her pictures and he still visits her gravesite every day.
They met when one day his sister brought Dorothy home after church and he was immediately smitten.
The life of Donald Paul Willison is full of rich history and memories. His story, one that is still being written, teaches us that life itself doesn’t have to end at 50, or 60 or even 90. By refusing to “quit,’’ he’s been able to lead an active lifestyle that is an example for everyone to follow.
Hughes may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donald Paul Willison stands wearing a bomber jacket similar in style to one he wore during his time with the U.S. Army Air Corps, inside the kitchen of his Colerain home. The cabinetry, while not installed by himself, is similar to the type of craftsmanship Willison displayed while serving as co-owner of the Bellaire Cabinet Shop for 22 years.