Ruth “Shirley” Patrick Willis, 90, of Philadelphia, a hairdresser who once styled wigs for singers Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle and Cindy Birdsong, and who, along with family members, opened a summer camp in the Poconos for Town Kids, died of Alzheimer’s Disease Monday, June 7, at Wyncote Place, an assisted living facility in Wyncote.
In addition to working as a hairdresser, Ms. Willis has worked as a model, dressmaker, interior designer and jewelry designer. With a friend, she designed and created window treatments for residents of the mainline of Philadelphia.
âShe was an extraordinary woman. She was an inspiration and a great role model, âsaid her daughter, Renee Allen.
Mrs. Willis was known to most by her nickname, âShirley,â which was given to her because she had big, bouncy curls like Shirley Temple. She grew up in West Philadelphia.
She was born January 13, 1931 to Lonnie Patrick and Ruth Johnston Patrick, who moved to Philadelphia after their marriage in Charleston, SC
She was the fourth of seven children to a schoolteacher mother and father who worked for the construction company of John Kelly, the father of the movie star and the late Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco.
Ms. Willis graduated from West Catholic High School in 1948.
She studied cosmetology and became an esthetician who worked in her older sister’s beauty salon on Broad Street near Erie Avenue in North Philadelphia. The store sold and styled wigs to celebrities like Ross, LaBelle and Birdsong.
About a year after graduating from high school, she married her Jesse Kyle, with whom she had two daughters. The couple divorced and in 1961 she married John “Sport” Willis II, who worked in the Philadelphia Police Department fingerprint lab and with whom she had a son.
Her family described her as a “fashionista” who enjoyed socializing, attending parties, and traveling to jazz clubs and festivals across the country with Mr. Willis. He died in 2016 after 55 years of marriage.
âShe was a real social butterfly and had a lot of fun,â her daughter said. “She was outgoing, a lot of fun and had a lot of friends.”
With one of her sisters, she started a travel club called Les Femmes, for a group of friends who have taken trips to Brazil, Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and more.
âShe didn’t just sit there, she was always on the move,â Allen said.
As a teenager, she and her family made frequent trips to Atlantic City beach every summer. Ms. Willis was photographed by acclaimed photojournalist John W. Moseley, whose depictions of black life in Philadelphia and beyond are now held in the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University.
Mrs Willis, along with her parents and sisters Leola Wallace and Audrey R. Johnson-Thornton – who was known for the restoration and upkeep of the Belmont Mansion in Fairmount Park – founded the Timberlake Camp and Ski Lodge in Berks County, in the Poconos.
She and her sisters worked with the Philadelphia Department of Recreation and community centers like the Boys and Girls Clubs to bring children from Philadelphia for two-week stays to overnight camp, in order to get them out of town, said Allen. They could enjoy swimming, archery, fishing and exploring nature.
Ms Willis was a member of the Sewing Sophisticates, a club whose members met in their homes to work on crafts, and she used her decorating and sewing skills to frequently change the decor of her West Mount Airy home.
âShe reupholstered furniture. She was a collector of beautiful things. She transformed her house every year, moving all the furniture, upholstering, installing new window treatments, âher daughter said.
Ms. Willis was also a long-time member of St. Luke’s Church, an Episcopal Church in Germantown.
In addition to her daughter Renee, Mrs. Willis is survived by her daughter, Annice Wooden, a son, John Willis III, seven grandchildren, a sister, a brother and many relatives and friends.
A funeral service was held on June 12.