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After several years of valiantly fighting the challenges of Alzheimer's disease, Wilhelmina “Billie” Pearl Steele Johnson Gillem passed away on June 8, 2018, at Brandywine Assisted Living in Wall Township. She lived a rich life deeply embedded in the love of God, family, friends, education and service.
There’s an adage that says, “Mondays child is fair of face…”, and that was certainly true for the beautiful Wilhelmina who was born on Monday, May 21, 1923 to Lula Cooper Steele and William Lawrence Steele in Neptune, New Jersey. Several years earlier Mr. and Mrs. Steele had joined the Great Migration and moved north in search of greater opportunities, settling on the Jersey shore and giving birth to Wilhelmina’s elder sister Mildred. The family formed a loving and powerful bond, forging indelible memories of life on the shore. Wilhelmina always considered it home, and lived the majority of her life on her beloved Jersey shore.
Mr. and Mrs. Steele were dedicated Methodists, and Wilhelmina was a member of St. Stephens AME Zion church in her younger years. Following the birth of her first child she was confirmed at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church and remained a faithful member until her death.
Wilhelmina attended Neptune Public schools and in childhood met the popular and dashing Johnson twins, Philip and Walter of neighboring Asbury Park. Wilhelmina and Philip forged a friendship and attended dances together including Billie’s high school prom. Aspiring to teach young people, Wilhelmina attended and graduated from Trenton State Teachers College (now The College of New Jersey) with a degree in Education and a concentration in English. She was one of the first black students to live on campus and the first to complete a practicum at the campus demonstration school.
By 1949 Wilhelmina and Philip Daniel Johnson’s friendship had blossomed into matrimony, and wedded bliss followed. To this union two children were born, Cynthia Beth and Philip William. Billie was a loving mother and enjoyed doting on her children and engaging them in spirited conversations on all manner of topics from politics to history to the arts and popular culture.
She also instilled in Cynthia and Philip a sense of pride of identity and their African American heritage. Son Philip mused, “Mom was proud of who she was and where she came from. Today, Mom would have been considered biracial since both of her maternal grandparents had white fathers and her paternal grandfather was white. I realize now that my mother could have easily passed for white, and lived a completely different life. But she loved being black.”
Billie’s husband Philip was the enduring love of her life and they enjoyed four decades of marriage until Philip passed away in 1989. Even in later years, she frequently spoke about how much she loved and missed him.
Formal, kind and ever gracious, Wilhelmina will always be remembered for her impeccable manners. She was a lady's lady—skirts and dresses were the preferred attire regardless of event or weather. In addition, she had a fondness for wearing polka dots. Her favorite mode of communication was a handwritten note or letter in her signature cursive. On occasion, she would drink a glass of wine, but left the purchasing of it to others. One day while riding in the car with her son Philip, he stopped to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner and Billie declined to get out of the car saying, “O, no dear, I don't go into liquor stores.”
In the 1990s, Billie renewed a friendship with Henry Gray Gillem of Virginia. The two had met as young adults and Gray had been the first to propose to her, but Wilhelmina returned the ring shortly after. Daughter Cynthia recalls that her mother had not wanted to live in the segregated state of Virginia, nor did she want to marry a Catholic. But life has a way of going full circle. In 1995 Wilhelmina married Gray in a Catholic church and enthusiastically attended mass with Gray for twenty years until he passed away in 2016. Billie and Gray enjoyed their time together and traveled extensively.
Wilhelmina was a voracious reader, often indulging in multiple books simultaneously. She loved biographies and counted as her favorite’s books about Winston Churchill, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Sam Houston. On a visit to the Woodlands to see son Phil and his family she was delighted to discover a huge statue of Sam Houston outside of Huntsville.
Being an educator was a cornerstone of who she was. Wilhelmina was a devoted teacher and taught at a number of schools including PS 44 in Brooklyn NY, and West End Elementary School in the Long Branch School District. She was a supporter and former member of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) teachers union; and a faithful attendee of the NJEA’s annual convention in Atlantic City. A fierce believer in justice, Wilhelmina not only refused to cross a picket line during a teacher’s strike in the 1970s, she joined the picket line in solidarity.
Billie loved God, church, family and her diverse group of friends. She had a sparkling sense of humor and loved to laugh and tell a good story. She was a member of many organizations including The League of Women Voters (chairing two committees); the St. Agnes Guild; and the Bridge Club. Billie was a charter member of the Monmouth Shore Chapter of Smart Set and active in that chapter as long as her health permitted. She was also a champion of the environment, and a forerunner of the recycling movement years before it was mandated.
Billie was a fan of many things. She adored art, music and movies—especially films starring Denzel Washington. She counted peanuts and gingersnaps as her favorite snack food and prided herself in being able to turn almost any entree into a sandwich. She was crazy for Barack Obama, and had many pictures of him throughout her home.
Wilhelmina cherished her role as “Grandmom”and passed along to her grandchildren a legacy of love, honesty, hard work, inspiring conversation and, of course, excellent manners. The grandchildren recall learning proper table etiquette, the interest she took in their activities, making sure they knew the family history.
Wilhelmina “Billie" Pearl Steele Johnson Gillem's life was long and well-lived. She lives to treasure her memory her daughter, Cynthia Beth Johnson (Pat) and son, Philip William Johnson (Lisa) both of Texas; grandchildren, Jessica Rose Shofner (Daniel), Adam Steele Johnson, Sonia Anabel Sims Johnson of Texas, and Philip Walter Sims Johnson of Seattle Washington; brother-in-law, Ruselle Willie Robinson, Sr of Lakewood, NJ; godson and nephew, Ruselle Willie Robinson, Jr. of Newton, MA; sister-in-law, Tommie Johnson of Detroit; as well as many beloved cousins across the country. Billie’s parents, sister, Mildred Robinson, husbands, Philip Johnson and Gray Gillem preceded her in death.
The family would like to express their deep gratitude to the many people who maintained friendships with Wilhelmina over the years.
Memorial contributions may be made to:
St. Augustine Episcopal
P.O. Box 245
Asbury Park, NJ 07712
In memory of Wilhelmina Steele Johnson Gillem
The Virtuous Woman
Her children arise up, and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praiseth her.
Many daughters have done virtuously,
but thou excellest them all.
Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain:
but a woman that feareth the LORD,
she shall be praised.
Proverbs 31: 28-30 KJV