Staff Profile: Lirmar Willis Looks Back (and Ahead)
By Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
That was 40 years ago, and he has been here ever since, guided by another piece of his father's wisdom: "keep focused and do your job well."
In his four decades on campus, Willis has worked under every Berkeley chancellor, beginning with Clark Kerr, whom he calls "the best chancellor ever."
"He was very broad-minded for that time," says Willis, "and it got him into political trouble. He was firm but very sensitive and personable."
Willis's family moved from Meridien, Mississippi to Berkeley
in 1941, looking for a better life.
Graduating from Berkeley High School in 1955, Willis found his first job on campus, as a lab assistant in bacteriology, in 1958.
Willis has two vivid memories from his first year on campus: Cal went to the Rose Bowl (it hasn't been back since), and a black male student was pressured out of escorting a white female student at Berkeley's annual homecoming parade.
"I never will forget that," Willis says. "It was so indicative of the racial divide in California."
His next position was as an animal caretaker for public health professor Sanford Elberg, whom he remembers with great affection.
Willis was especially fond of the monkeys and once took a sickly one home to nurse it back to health. When the monkey died, Willis was heartbroken. "I never worked with animals again," he says.
In 1966 Willis went to work for the chemistry department as a stores supervisor, and has been there ever since.
From the '60s he particularly remembers visits to campus by Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. "It was a very dramatic time," he recalls.
Last year Willis moved into the seventh floor of Tan Hall, where he supervises the ordering and dispensing of equipment and chemicals to faculty and students.
Now he's looking forward to retirement, which will be timed to coincide with his wife's, sometime in the next year.
"I've got a gleam in my eye because I see a light at the end of the tunnel," he says. "We plan to travel the world while we're still healthy."
Between trips, he will devote time to his passion for golf. (Coach of the St. Mary's College golf team from 1974 to 1976 and a charter member of the campus faculty-staff golf club, Willis has met the likes of Jim Plunkett, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Billy Jean King, and Bobby Riggs at Pro-Am tournaments.)
One thing he won't miss in retirement is workplace politics, especially what he perceives as an influx of corporate middle managers who arrive with their own agendas and end up reinventing the wheel.
But when asked if he would do his years at Berkeley all over again, Willis has no regrets. "We're each little stones holding up this prestigious institution," he says. "People have their private agendas, but we need to work together.
"I really enjoy the postdocs, the visiting scholars and the grad students," adds Willis. "If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here."
Willis has particularly fond memories of former chemistry faculty C. Judson King (now UC provost and senior vice president - academic affairs), Nobelist Yuan Lee, with whom he played softball, and the late George Pimentel. A photo of Lee in baseball attire is one of the few personal items decorating his small office.
Says chemistry professor Sam Markowitz: "In many fields - important ones, such as chemistry and baseball - one should strive to do the extra five percent that makes the standout performer truly excel. Lirmar Willis, with his constantly infectious good cheer and diligence, does more than the five percent."
That won't change in retirement. With rental property to manage in Oakland's Rockridge district, friends and family to help, and work to do in his Catholic parish, "I'll never stop working," Willis predicts. "I may even come back here to help out - temporarily," he adds.