“And, I can do it,” she promises. “I’ve already got it written down.”
Her audience may have to hush a bit to appreciate her soft, refined accent of the Deep South, which fits her demeanor if not her geographical history.
She was born on a family farm near Rosenberg in 1927 – the same year of the first talking motion picture – a symbolic coincidence for Willa Mae, who loves movies and talking.
“I could ride a horse, but I was scared of chickens,” she recalls.
Sitting in her favorite chair in her home, she is surrounded by family memorabilia, her collection of books, spoons and decorative plates and all things China – one of her lifelong passions.
And Tai, her calico cat, whose independence is matched only by Willa Mae’s, and the feisty spirit of Viola Fern Unzicker, her mother.
“Back then, Tuleta was a strict Mennonite town,” Willa Mae remembers. “You had a set of rules that had to be followed, absolutely.”
When her mother left home to attend college at San Marcos, she failed to pack the religious precepts.
“When my mother came back home, she had bobbed her hair; she was wearing hose and makeup and a ‘dippity-do’ skirt.”
The community revolted against Viola’s revolution. She was shunned.
“If mother walked down the street, anyone approaching her would cross the road to keep from meeting.”
SCORES OF decades later, that obstinate strain can be gleaned from Viola’s dress and expression in a photograph taken with her daughter.
And it sometimes escapes in the form of sparkles from the eyes of Willa Mae.
Before settling in Tuleta, she lived in Tynan, Zapata, Uvalde, Victoria...wherever Humble Oil told her father he was needed. “We just moved everywhere.”
While a freshman at Pettus High School, she walked into a classroom, and her life was never the same.
“I saw Grady. I looked at him; he looked at me, and that was it,” she says. “He said he wanted to take me home in his pocket.”
Later, he did, but not before her classmates voted her most beautiful and most likely to succeed. The couple married at the King Ranch.
Her voice takes on a different tone. “I sure do miss him,” she says.
Grady, a Marine in World War II, was a severe diabetic in later years; blind the last two years of his life.
“But anyway” — the feistiness returns — “on with the history of Tuleta.”
SHE spent 30 years as postmaster there. Such tenure almost guarantees a continuing dedication to local history.
“I’m the oldest living member of the family that settled Tuleta. And, I’m a member of the National Historical Society of the United States, Washington, D.C. Now, that’s an honor.”
SHE FOLLOWED her mother’s footsteps to college in San Marcos.
“I majored in art and minored in physical education. I was an expert swimmer.”
Her art leaned toward painting and woodcraft.
“I have a shop out in the back, but I won’t show it to you,” she says. “It’s a mess.”
A couple of rooms away, an upright piano decorated with raised, lavishly carved, wooden front panels – and in need of tuning – is a testament to her music. When she bought it for $25 from the South Texas Children’s Home – where she worked for a number of years – the piano was in pieces.
“They were going to burn it!” she says, still slightly aghast at the thought.
“I also played the clarinet and percussion. I’m a mean machine on the drum.”
Today, at 86, her drumbeat is to keep Tuleta history – and herself – in a state of active health.
HER FULL, white hair, held in check by a hair clip of eight yellow stones, shakes a little when she laughs as she shares two books, her latest acquisitions from an estate sale.
Getting Older Ain’t for Wimps by Karen O’Connor and What’s So Funny About Getting Old? by Jane Thomas Noland.
Never enough time to tell it all. “Oh my goodness,” she tells an out-of-town visitor. “You don’t know anything.”
But they’ll know more after today, if they can spare 20 minutes.