Robert E. Willets, a West Toledo accountant who was a co-founder and longtime organizer of the annual German-American Festival first in Toledo, then in Maumee, and later in Oregon, died Sunday in St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center. He was 87.
Son Jeffrey Willets said he did not know the exact cause of his father's death, but it likely was associated with Alzheimer's disease, with which Mr. Willets was diagnosed in 2003.
Mr. Willets saw the German-American Festival as a way to unify the German ethnic community in metro Toledo, which had seven different social clubs, the son said, and spearheaded the effort to acquire the land that became Oak Shade Grove in Oregon, where the annual event has been held since 1987.
Mr. Willets was the festival's president for 18 years.
"He was very instrumental in keeping the seven German clubs together," agreed Lee Weber, the vice president for 12 of those years and one of the other two men, along with Willie Fiedler, who guided the festival grounds' acquisition and development.
Mr. Weber said Mr. Willets was skilled at mediating disputes, smoothing over people's minor differences, and rallying volunteers. "Nobody gets paid out there, and everybody works, and it was all through Bob," said Mr. Weber, who described the German-American Festival as Mr. Willets' "heart and soul." A street within the festival grounds is named in Mr. Willets' honor.
Mr. Willets had his private accounting practice on Sylvania Avenue for nearly 20 years, starting in 1963. Before that, he worked a variety of jobs, including an unsuccessful attempt to start his own business as the local franchise-holder for a pillow-cleaning business.
A 1937 graduate of DeVilbiss High School, Mr. Willets worked at the Toledo Ticket Co. and then, after the outbreak of World War II, made 50-caliber bullets at Willys Overland before transferring to the company's accounting department.
He also served in the Civil Air Patrol with his wife, the former Mary Kathleen Kirkman, whom he met at Gem Beach in Ottawa County in 1940 and married in 1942.
After the war, Mr. Willets worked for the Internal Revenue Service for a short time, then became service manager at Bauer-Harrington Inc., a Lincoln-Mercury dealer in Toledo.
He left Bauer-Harrington to become a senior internal auditor at Willys Motors, then in 1953 he was hired as office manager by the Cannan Co., a local cleaners.
Mr. Willets made his entrepreneurial foray in 1958 when he obtained a seven-county franchise for Fluff 'n Puff Pillow Cleaners, a business in which he operated a truck that carried a sewing machine and dryer with ultra-violet tubes that sterilized and deodorized pillow feathers.
The firm's customers were hotels, hospitals, and similar businesses with large numbers of pillows, and Jeffrey Willets recalled going with his father once on a Thanksgiving Day service call an hour from home.
But the business foundered as more and more customers switched to foam pillows, the son said, so during the early 1960s, Mr. Willets went back into accounting, first in joint practice with two others and then by himself.
In younger years, Mr. Willets was a scout master with the Boy Scouts of America in Toledo, and during the 1960s he was active with Sertoma International, for which he was elected district governor.
He was a longtime Mason and member of the Zenobia Shrine and Toledo American Turners.
Jeffrey Willets said his father "enjoyed golf tremendously" and was a member of the Highland Meadows Golf Club during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Later on, he volunteered at the Jamie Farr ladies' professional golf tournament at Highland Meadows, while hitting the links regularly when he and Mrs. Willets wintered in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., for the last 25 years.
Surviving are his wife, Mary; son, Jeffrey; daughter, Robin Majewski, and two grandchildren.
The body will be in the Ansberg-West Funeral Home, where the family will receive visitors from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday and from 9 a.m. until noon on Friday. Funeral services will begin at noon Friday in the mortuary.
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