In Memoriam: Remembering Willie
In the passing of Wilma West on Dec.17, 1996, occupational therapy lost one of its prime movers and shakers, and ADVANCE lost one of its best friends.
A 1941 graduate of the Boston School of Occupational Therapy, Wilma West served many posts in OT, clinically and administratively during the next 41 years: executive director of AOTA, consultant to the Office of Maternal and Child Health of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (later HHS), and as a clinician in various U.S. Army hospitals. A Slagle lecturer, West also earned the first master's degree in occupational therapy, from the University of Southern California, and served as a founder and president of the American Occupational Therapy Foundation.
For a good many years during my tenure as editor here, I knew her only as a name in OT textbooks and a highly-respected reference on the tongues of our contributors. I also knew she was the benefactor of
AOTA's national library. Like a picture on the wall of an archives, she graced my imagination.
The picture came to life one day six or seven years ago, when I opened a letter to the editor with Willie's signature on it.
To be honest, I was almost afraid to read it! I had peeked at the name and never having heard from her before, wondered whether we might have committed some fatal error.
This, of course, is the secret fear of every editor, and it's enough to make one break out in a cold sweat. Had we completely misspelled someone's name? Identified the wrong person in a photo caption? Attributed some frame of reference to the wrong person?
I finally brushed aside my paranoia and looked at the letter. It was an open request from Wilma, "as an AOTA member," to ask if we
could please send ADVANCE to the AOTA library in Rockville, MD. She considered it a necessary resource.
My concern turned to surprise, and I decided she deserved a phone call in response.
The ensuing conversation gave me great pleasure, for this icon of the profession told me, as I best recall, "Your publication is used by practitioners and educators to stay current in the profession. It's in many OT classrooms, and I believe we need it in our library." She backed the newsmagazine, she said, because it had earned her support, and she would continue to support it loudly and strongly so long as it deserved such loyalty.
I couldn't have asked for a more honest challenge. I met Willie shortly thereafter at USC's 4th Occupational Science Symposium, which ADVANCE co-sponsored, here in Philadelphia. She was as direct and honest in person as she had been on the phone.
I had earlier caught the vision of the profession that West helped to create, and when we spoke of OT, we spoke in the same vein. Of the same hopes, and the same frustrations--hers from having lived them, mine from having come to understand and value them.
After that, I noticed that whenever we briefly met, she would give me a conversational "nod," so to speak, just to let me know we were on the right track.
Willie stood firmly for occupation as the underpinning of the profession. In 1992 I watched her fight a losing battle against an AOTA stand allowing the conditional use of physical agent modalities by OTs. Long after retirement, her opinions continued to challenge the status quo.
There did come that fateful day when I actually did get a critical letter from West, after failing to catch a misinterpreted statement about her 1967 Slagle Lecture. Chagrined, I called and assured her we would print a correction. She thanked me--and with what sounded almost like a chuckle, told me that she just wanted to keep us on our toes and set the record straight.
When I last saw Wilma West, at a USC reunion last April, she was obviously beginning to fail, though she would never accede to letting it show. In her eyes was still the sparkle of challenge. At 80, this woman still had promises to keep to occupational therapists who had not yet been born when she was in practice.
I knelt down beside her chair so we could talk without the din of partying in our ears.
"I liked that Reilly piece," she said firmly. "Keep up the good work."
We'll do our best, Willie. For you.