Dick Willette Sr., director of the Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen in Waterville for 20 years and a 36-year volunteer there, died suddenly on Sunday, two days before he hoped to announce his replacement.

Willette, 83, died unexpectedly at 6:45 a.m. after sitting down to sell tickets at an Independent Order of Oddfellows breakfast in Albion, according to his wife, Gloria Beaulieu-Willette.

Beaulieu-Willette said Monday at the couple’s home in Fairfield that he had health issues, and she believes he died of a heart attack. He had not felt well lately and talked a lot about dying, she said.

“I still don’t believe it,” she said of his sudden death. “I look for him and I say, ‘He’s coming home,’ but he isn’t.”

Willette announced Oct. 19 that he planned to retire from the soup kitchen at the end of the year so he and his wife could travel. He said he knew it was time and he hoped to name a replacement Nov. 1.

“I hate to get done,” he said Oct. 19 at the soup kitchen in the basement of Sacred Heart Church on Pleasant Street. “I’d rather die here. This place takes care of people, and that’s our goal — to take care of people.”

His funeral will be at 9 a.m. Thursday in that church, according to his wife.

“He wants the biggest funeral,” she said. “He kept telling me he wants the biggest funeral.”

Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro on Monday praised Willette and all he did for the community.

“I think he was an example to all of us,” Isgro said. “He lived each day in the service of his fellow man, and I think every one of us can stop and take a moment to reflect on his life and how we can honor Dick and his life and do the same.”

Joan Phillips-Sandy, who for many years has brought Mount Merici Academy students to volunteer at the soup kitchen on Wednesdays, said she was shocked to learn Willette had died.

Phillips-Sandy was in New York City Monday when her husband, Bob, texted her with the news.

“I am incredibly shocked,” Phillips-Sandy said in a phone interview. “I’m just so sad. He was truly a wonderful man. I loved working with him. I’ll miss him terribly, and I’m very glad that, last Wednesday when I was leaving, I turned around and went back and personally said good-bye, because I was going to New York. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to New York. I’ll see you next week. Thanks for everything.’ He said, ‘OK, dear, see you then.’ I truly loved him.”

Willette, a founder of the soup kitchen, had seen it through tough times, particularly four years ago when he announced it would have to close because it was in dire financial shape.

After a story appeared in the Morning Sentinel about the plight, many people donated money and vowed to send $5 or $10 a week or month to help it stay open in the long term. Willette had also pitched in his own money now and then when things were very tight.

He said in an interview at the kitchen Oct. 19 that he had $50,000 in the soup kitchen checkbook to turn over to the new director, whoever it might be. He said he thought two people might have to take over operations with one person handling the checkbook and paying bills and another running the kitchen.

HELPING UNTIL THE END

Paul McDonald, 79, and a 22-year volunteer, said Monday that some volunteers and most patrons of the soup kitchen learned of Willette’s death earlier in the day when they arrived at the facility. They were upset and shocked, according to McDonald.

“He was highly respected, and he was a good organizer and a good administrator,” McDonald said of Willette, adding that whenever a volunteer retired from the kitchen, Willette would always find another one.

Willette trained college students and people who are wards of the justice system to help volunteer also, according to McDonald. He said those who eat at the soup kitchen are worried it will close without Willette there, but he is sure it will remain open.

“It’s not going to stop,” McDonald said. “I think somebody’s going to step up.”

Beaulieu-Willette, who owns and operates Loving Caring Hands Food Pantry at their home on Green Road in Fairfield, said he left their home at about 5:50 a.m. Sunday to head to the Albion breakfast. She did not feel well, so she did not accompany him.

She later received a call from a friend at the Oddfellows who told her Willette had sat in his vehicle a while before coming into the building. The friend went out to see if he was OK and helped get Willette’s walker out for him.

Willette sat down in the chair to sell tickets to the breakfast, and a few minutes later people noticed his head was tipped back and they checked on him and found him unconscious, according to Beaulieu-Willette. They checked for a pulse and finding none laid him on the floor and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation, Beaulieu-Willette said.

“When I got the call, they were working on him. I speeded over there. I flew as fast as I could. They wouldn’t let me near him at first. They did CPR more than 20 minutes. I touched his face. I said, ‘Dick, Dick.’ There was no response. I touched his head. He was cold already. He was gone. I stooped all the way down and gave him a kiss.”

Willette owned and operated Chase Fuel Co. in Winslow for 52 years, sold the business 15 years ago and retired, all the while working in the soup kitchen.

His first wife, Grace, to whom he was married 59 years, died about six years ago, leaving him devastated. His life became happy again when he married Gloria, who had lost her husband in 2012. Willette said Oct. 19 that he was looking forward to traveling in his camper with his wife.

“We were going to Florida,” she said Monday at her home, where the camper was parked in the driveway.

SAYING A PRAYER

Poring over photos of their time together — at their wedding on Valentine’s Day, 2014, on a trip to Niagara Falls and other places — Beaulieu-Willette said her husband had friends all over the world who adored him.

“It seems everywhere we went, there were people that knew him,” she said. “I used to think that was something.”

Several weeks ago, Beaulieu-Willette was in the hospital, as she has a heart condition and had a stroke, and Willette would not leave her side, she said.

“He said a prayer beside my bed. He said, ‘Please don’t take her away from me.’ He didn’t want God to take me. I was hooked up to IVs and everything. I had a stroke.”

Then one morning two or three weeks ago, Willette woke up and said he felt as if the life was being taken right out of him, according to Beaulieu-Willette. She insisted they call 911, but he would not allow her to do that, she said. She said she was sure he had a heart attack, but no matter how much she tried to convince him to go to the hospital, he would not.

“All he talked about was getting ready to die. ‘Why doesn’t He take me?’ he said. I said you’re too good.”

Willette was a member of the Clinton Lions Club, the Waterville Elks Lodge, the ATOM antique car club and a grange member among other things, according to his wife.

“He was a wonderful guy and he was into everything he could be in and he supported them,” she said. “He was donating to every charity.”

She said he wanted the ashes of his dogs, Angel and Buffy, to be buried with him and that wish will be fulfilled.

She recalled their marriage outside Shawmut Chapel on that chilly Valentine’s Day in 2014 and then their dinner at the former Weathervane restaurant on Kennedy Memorial Drive in Waterville, which has since been torn down.

“We said we’d go there every year on our anniversary,” she recalled through tears. “They tore that down and now he’s gone.”

Visiting hours for Willette will be 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at Gallant’s Funeral Home on Elm Street in Waterville.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17


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