Willis Watts O’Hair aka Mrs. Walter R. O’Hair  – Park #42

 

 “Life is so fast paced today that good use of leisure time is essential to mental health”

– Willis Watts O’Hair

IT’S GOOD TO HAVE A WOMAN IN CHARGE

Alice, Viola, Minerva, Willis… They all had distinctive names; they were / are distinctive women.  In this post, we are working through the women honored with a park.. there are a few more after this one.. Lotta, Delores, Clara, Erma.. brilliant names. andreag 

In 1940, the Detroit Department of Parks and Boulevards merged with the Detroit Department of Parks and Recreation to reduce redundant efforts and financial waste.  A new commission was formed to oversee the new solo Department of Parks and Recreation. 

Mrs. Willis Watts O’Hair was appointed to this commission by Mayor Edward Jeffries; importantly, she was the first woman to become the president of a Detroit city commission.  Ultimately, she would serve four terms before her death in 1959.   

Willis Watts O'Hair  Photo:  1945 Annual Report
Willis Watts O’Hair
Photo: 1945 Annual Report

Under her guidance, Detroit parks experienced enormous growth through improved services.  New offerings included:  supervised tot lots, installation of shuffleboard courts, 9 artificial ice rinks [her idea], an indoor / outdoor city pool, competitive sports leagues for teens; horticulture activities, arts and crafts for all ages and on.

O’Hair was a booster for free band and symphony concerts arranged by Parks and Rec.  Her pet project was the installation of a putting green and golf driving range on Belle Isle.  The driving range was popular and financially successful; the commission opened another in Rouge Park.  During her tenure, Detroit rose from 7th place for recreation honors to 1st place nationally. 

Mrs. O’Hair always maintained that recreation centers should be within walking distance of residential areas.  “The greatest need is in the congested areas,” she said in 1953, then adding, “There is no greater thrill for me than to see youngsters enjoying themselves.”

Prior to the commission appointment, O’Hair raised funds for the support of the March of Dimes and founded the Women’s Auxiliary of the Volunteers of America.  She enjoyed bridge and the theater.  In 1943, she received an honorary degree in Sociology from the Detroit Institute of Technology.  Willis Watts was married to attorney Walter O’Hair.  They had 3 children.  Her son John Dennis Watts O’Hair became the Wayne County Prosecutor. 

Willis often said, “You get back what you give out” and she lived these words assisting others throughout her life.  Overall, Willis Watts O’Hair was a hands-on Parks and Recreation Commissioner taking interest in boxing matches and other sporting events, as well as trying some of the programs out herself.  Above all, she was always a lady.  

Pretty spring day at O’Hair. Sorry about the garbage in this picture.. it’s long gone now. The neighborhood association is super tight and works hard to keep O’Hair and the surrounding area tidy.

 

A big park for a woman who positively impacted Detroit.  Map via Google.
A big park for a woman who had a huge and positive impact on Detroiter’s with recreation. Map via Google.

 

Looking west toward the park and Pitcher Woods.
Looking west toward the park and Pitcher Woods.

O’Hair Park  located at Stahelin and Hessel Street is a staggering 78 acres which includes 20 acres of forest.  The land  was donated to the city by Joseph and Helen Holtzman in 1947.  Pitcher Woods honors Dr. Zina Pitcher, Mayor of Detroit 1840-1844.  Pitcher greatly influenced the State of Michigan to pass a law for the first free public school in Detroit and helped create the Medical Department at the University of Michigan.  The nearby Pitcher School is now closed.  The surrounding subdivision has a strong neighborhood association that works hard to keep this community safe and vibrant.

Detail on Pitcher Elementary School exterior.
Detail on Pitcher Elementary School exterior.