RoJene Ella Willard, 69, passed away at her home in Topeka, October 20, 2021.
Born on June 1, 1952 in Topeka to Francis E. and Margaret J. (Hassett) Conwell, she was the 3rd of 7 children. She attended Topeka Public Schools until 1967 when the family moved to the Auburn-Washburn District.
RoJene graduated from WRHS in 1970, received a Bachelors of Education from Washburn University in 1989 and a Masters in Educational Technology from Kansas State University in 2004. She taught Elementary school from 1989 through 2002 at Dover (Mission Valley) and finished her career at Seaman USD 345 from 2002 through 2017 (Rochester and West Indianola).
RoJene married high school classmate and lifelong friend James S. Willard on February 14, 1979. He survives her. She is survived by two children, Christopher E. (Lisa) of Topeka and Eric L. of Topeka and three grandchildren. She is survived by three siblings, Sherian Conwell-Betz (Lynn), Colleen Biesemeyer (Fred) and Kent Conwell (Dawn). She was predeceased by her parents and three siblings, Duane, Shelly and Shayne.
Visitation will be held at Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church on Monday, October 25th from 4:00 until 8:00 p.m. with a rosary prayed at 6:00 p.m. Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 10:00 a.m. Tuesday, October 26th, at the church. Entombment will follow in the Holy Trinity Mausoleum at Mt. Calvary Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Helping Hands Humane Society of Topeka, the Topeka Rescue Mission, Dover Community Center or to the KSU Foundation designated for the College of Education Scholarship Fund and sent in care of Brennan-Mathena Funeral Home, 800 SW 6th Ave., Topeka, Kansas 66603.
A simple obituary cannot do justice to anyone’s life, but at the least an effort should be made to create as much of a memory as possible.
RoJene was one of the best of God’s creations. She was kind, loving, compassionate, fun loving, talented, brave, adventurous, intelligent, a great worker, a leader and when needed, a hero----all without one bit of ego or self-importance. She was always the soldier you wanted on your team, and she instinctively knew when to step forward and when to follow. She made friends in short order wherever she was. She could not see colour and accepted everyone as an equal. She was calm in crisis and a steady rock for those close to her. She always knew what to do and she always knew when to do it, or whether or not to do it at all. She truly walked the walk, instead of talking the talk.
RoJene was petite, blonde haired, blue eyed, and fully half Irish. She was proud of that heritage. She was elated at having the opportunity to take a tour of Ireland. She was almost never in a bad mood, had a beautiful laugh, and was someone you wanted to spend time with. She could be as quiet as a mouse, but she could talk with the best when properly motivated.
As a child RoJene was nurtured by her family and the value of a stable environment set the stage for her future confidence. She would often fondly recall riding horses with her cousins Rick and Jim and her sister Colleen. There were Shetlands, carts and full sized horses that provided many adventures---although she related that she was unable to master baton twirling while standing on the bare back of her horse who would patiently stop to see why she was on the ground. She cherished the memories of going to the grocery store to see her dad while at work. She played until dark with neighborhood children and walked back and forth from school for lunch and was always delighted to talk about “Grandma Lloyd” that her parents hired to fix lunch and be with them before and after school. She felt fortunate to be a child of the 50’s and 60’s. She loved 60’s and 70’s music and knew the words to most songs, singing along with CDs and later Sirius Radio when she was in the car.
Those who knew RoJene in high school may remember her as a participant in as much as she could do. In her first year coming from another school district she was in debate, was social chairman of the sophomore class and was in band where she first met her best friend Laura Copp and her someday husband Jim Willard. By her junior year she was the STUCO rep for debate, in Kayettes, in the variety show, a B-Team cheerleader, and in band. Her senior year extended her time in band, Kayettes, and STUCO and saw her become an A-Team cheerleader and Christmas Queen. She also played a Martian in the variety show. RoJene stayed in touch with many of her high school friends.
RoJene had a deep love for education and reading. She also loved children. She was made in heaven to be an elementary teacher. She was the first in her immediate family to obtain a college degree and the first to obtain an advanced degree. She attributed her love for reading to her paternal grandmother Vera Ella Billings Conwell. She frequently mentioned her grandmother and was obviously deeply influenced by her. She mentioned her often as an inspiration to obtain more education and become a teacher. Her mother Marge backed her when she decided to pursue her bachelor’s, but sadly did not get to see her obtain her Master’s. RoJene was a voracious reader and read a wide range of genres, from fantasy, to history, to romance, to inspirational and more. Her love for reading also motivated her in making certain that her many students learned to read and read well. Her classes always showed improvement and she could get them to improve scores as well as anyone. She also loved science, and included STEM in her lesson plans long before the acronym became popular. Here classrooms were extremely active and there were often chinchillas, rabbits, tarantulas and birds. On occasion she could get them to eat edible mealworms (the kids). She had expectations for every student and did not give up on any of them. She would often prepare weekend snack packs for children that feared long weekends because they might not get to eat. She knew how to spot abuse and how to handle it----she was never intimidated by abusive parents and sadly there were occasions when school security and her husband attended certain conferences. She worked long hours to improve lesson plans and prepare for the next day. Her Master’s degree in Educational Technology gave her access to cutting edge technology, which she often garnered for her classroom, having been trained to use it at KSU. Even before her Master’s she eagerly embraced early Apple’s, MS DOS and Commodores. She often served as PTA treasurer and worked on committees to help other teachers report their status to move over on the salary scale.
RoJene’s education degree gave her the ability to be off in the summers, but also gave her the skills to press her own children to do their homework, become better students, and perhaps not to lose as much over the summer. Both of them obtained higher education degrees. She used the summers to forge great relationships with other parents and children that included excursions at the beach, movies, and later became a baseball and soccer mom that spent most of her summer carting one or the other of them to some kind of athletic event. She drove a Dodge B250 Van to Kentucky filled with an erstwhile paintball team to compete in a tournament that was WAY over their skill set. In all of those summers she received her joy from activity with the children, and didn’t ask anything for herself.
RoJene could be a hero. Completely calm under pressure she could render first aid, whether at school or the ballpark, and carted bleeding players (not only hers) to emergency rooms in her new car, caring only about the child. She knew how to render first aid to a burn victim, dramatically lessening the injuries. Being a caring human being willing to take action was instinctive to her.
Undoubtedly, her desire to read influenced many aspects of her life, as arising from what she had read she loved Sci-Fi and Fantasy and didn’t miss anything Star Trek, Star Wars, King Arthur or Lord of the Rings. She enjoyed elves, fairies and other mythical creatures. She decorated her home for every holiday---especially Halloween and Christmas---and often incorporated Mark Roberts fairies and Hallmark Star Trek ornaments at the holidays. She was an extremely talented cross-stitcher and made many beautiful pieces to adorn the home she was instrumental in making.
Higher education opened many doors for RoJene—professionally, personally, and at the football field and basketball court. Graduating from K-State gets you reduced price tickets (for a limited number of years) to watch the Cats play at Bill Snyder Family Stadium and at Bramlage Coliseum. She didn’t miss a football game from the time of graduation to COVID. She saw most of the basketball games from the Bob Huggins year to 2015. She knew all of the cheers and enthusiastically participated as a member of the crowd. She was as excited about KSU football and fall weather as one could be. She loved going to Aggieville, Call Hall Dairy Bar, and any other interesting place Manhattan might offer.
While busy with children, education and profession, she did not neglect adventure, time with her husband, or her friends. She played on a ladies’ slow pitch softball team for multiple years (the Archway Cookies)---they won the once famous Lake Shawnee Labor Day Marathon one year. She was good with many adventures---boating, water skiing, snow skiing, hiking in the mountains and in Alaska, (and even the more dangerous Shunga Park). She was unfazed by running across fresh grizzly bear scat or being within 75 feet of a mother moose with calf. She helicoptered to the top of a glacier, put on crampons, and walked near fissures where the blue ice could make you disappear for 200 years. She snorkeled, swam with dolphins, went whale watching and saw sperm whales breach and a pod of orcas training their young. She got to smell the Sea lions and seals (no treat there). She zip lined in arboreal forests and tropical jungles and crossed deep ravines on rope bridges. She travelled to Northern Ireland and Ireland---considered by her to be her native country. She cruised twice to Alaska, including treks to Denali and the Yukon, and three times to the Caribbean. She climbed to the top of the El Castillo Pyramid at Tulum when you were still allowed to do that. She went to Paris and saw the Eiffel tower and spent time at the Cathedral of Notre Dame (before it burned), which she considered to be a profound religious experience. She loved big cities and enjoyed Kansas City, New York, San Diego, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Houston (not so much) and New Orleans. Jim and RoJene danced country couples almost every Friday night for over 15 years. They attended dance conventions in Kansas City several years. They made solid lifelong friendships with three other couples they danced with, travelled with, went to car shows with and socialized with over those years. Those friends, Vicky, Gary, Jolene, Gene, Mark & Dana, were frequent providers of moral support during her illness.
RoJene and Jim lived in the same home 41 years (built by them on land once owned by her much loved aunt and uncle) where they grew trees, flowers, chickens (RoJene may not have been real high on them), gardens and children. RoJene selected the design of the home and pitched in with staining, varnishing and painting the home as it was being built. She worked diligently to restore an antique fireplace mantle for the bedroom and she and Jim made numerous trips to Kansas City to obtain antique fixtures, knobs and trim for use in the home. The home was featured in a full-page spread of the Capital Journal. She would often say how much she loved her house. She was extremely fortunate to have lived next door to her sister Colleen and brother-in-law Fred for over 30 years, which greatly added to the enjoyment of her home. The home was the center of over 40 Thanksgiving celebrations (some years there were two to accommodate a large Bible study group) and nearly forty 4th of July celebrations that RoJene coordinated.
Jim, Chris and Eric extend their sincere thanks to the friends and family that have supported them for the last 5 years of RoJene’s illness. RoJene was deeply grateful and well aware of those who loved her during that time.