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Obituary-Dr. Thomas William Willis

Thomas William Willis, 66, of Cookeville, Tenn., passed away on Sunday afternoon, July 19, 2009. Willis was born Sept. 20, 1942, to Thomas Houston and Jessie Isabelle Zeigler Willis in Selma, Ala. His Bachelor’s of Arts in history came from Livingston College (now Northwest Alabama University). He taught American history at Southside High school in Selma, Ala., for five years. During that time he was elected president of the Dallas County Teacher’s Association. The next five years he served as supervisor of Diagnostic and Educational Services and supervisor of Educational Day Program for Central Alabama Youth Services in Selma, Ala. During this time, he earned his master’s degree in school administration from the University of Alabama. After “hearing the calling”, he earned his doctorate in special education in 1979 from the University of Alabama. That same year, Tennessee Technological University advertised for his specialty in learning disabilities and gifted education, so Willis moved to Cookeville to pursue his career in teaching and his passion for the Tennessee Walking Horse. He was employed at TTU for over 30 years.

His career, as well as the life’s work, was in the field of inspiring future and present teachers of special education to love the field of teaching children with disabilities. He was tenured and held the rank of full professor. For over 10 years, he was the director of the “Summer Program for Educational Development” where children with learning disabilities and children that were gifted came together during two weeks in the summer to learn and foster their common bonds. He also was the program director of Tennessee Tech’s Science Enrichment for Females to increase participation of women in the fields of math and science. For 22 years, he directed the Special Education Teacher’s Institute funded by the Tennessee State Department of Education where teachers teaching on waivers could become certified in special ed.

He served as president of the Alabama Association of Children with Learning Disabilities, 1975-1978, where he was the recipient of the Outstanding Past President Award. He served as president of the Upper Cumberland Council for Exceptional Children, 1980-1981. He also served as faculty advisor to the Student Council for Exception Children for many years. He was nominated for TTU’s Outstanding Teaching Faculty Award on four different occasions. He served as president for the Tennessee Association for Gifted (TAG) in the early 90s. He also served as director of “Base 10” (Be a Special Educator in Tennessee), a state funded program to help people became special education teachers.

Outside of his career and family, his love of genealogy, history, antiques and Tennessee Walking Horses were his driving forces. He raised, trained and showed several outstanding show horses and colts. He began showing horses in Selma, Al., out of the barn of well-known trainer Claude Shaw. After moving to Tennessee, he showed and among his winners were Winston’s Big Secret, Reserved World Champion Owned and Trained Walking Horse; The Hickory Stick, World Champion Yearling Colt and Reserved World’s Champion Yearling; Fashion’s Razzmatazz; Mitchie’s KV, 1987 Three-Year-Old Plantation World Champion; The Favored One, Trainers’ Show Plantation Champion; and most recently, Fashion’s Sunnie Attraction, 2008 FOSH North American Champion and 2008 NWHA High Point Versatility Champion. He served as president of the Upper Cumberland Walking Horse Association for three different terms

He is survived by his wife, Martha Elizabeth Summers Shanks Willis; one stepdaughter, Chrissa Elizabeth Shanks Goin (Gary Lee); one-step grandson, Jacob Alan Goin; two brothers, Bobby Hughes Willis (Leigh) and Bennie Zeigler Willis, of Selma Ala.; and two nieces Melanie Willis Blair (Walter) of Falls Church, Va., and Jessica Willis of Selma, Ala. Other members of the family are brother-in-law Harvey Louis Summers (Cathy) of Cookeville and his children, Robert Harvey Summers (Elizabeth), Sarah Allison Summers Baisley (Andrew) and Matthew Howell Summers (Nichole), along with three step nephews.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be sent to the Tennessee Technological University Education Foundation, in memory of Dr. Tom Willis, TTU Box 1915, Cookeville, TN 38505 or the Kate Duncan Smith DAR School Special Education Department in Grant, Ala. (Make checks payable to TSDAR and on the “for” line write “KDS-DAR, Tom Willis” and send to Charlotte Reynolds, TSDAR State Treasurer, 244 Ridgeway, Crossville, TN 38555-8457)


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