Ruth “Shirley” Patrick Willis, 90, of Philadelphia, a hairstylist who once styled wigs for singers Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, and Cindy Birdsong, and who, with family members, opened a summer camp in Berks County for city children, died of Alzheimer’s disease Monday, June 7, at Wyncote Place, an assisted living home in Wyncote.
In addition to working as a hairstylist, Mrs. Willis worked as a model, seamstress, interior designer, and jewelry-maker. With a friend, she designed and created window dressings for residents on Philadelphia’s Main Line.
“She was an amazing woman. She was inspiration, and a great role model,” said her daughter Renee Allen.
Mrs. Willis was known to most by her nickname, “Shirley,” given to her because she had large, bouncy curls like Shirley Temple. She grew up in West Philadelphia.
She was born Jan. 13, 1931, to Lonnie Patrick and Ruth Johnston Patrick, who moved to Philadelphia after their marriage in Charleston, S.C.
She was the fourth of seven children of a schoolteacher mother and a father who worked for the construction company of John Kelly, the father of the movie star and late Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco.
Mrs. Willis graduated from West Catholic High School in 1948.
She studied cosmetology and became a beautician who worked in her older sister’s beauty salon on Broad Street, near Erie Avenue, in North Philadelphia. The shop sold and styled wigs to celebrities.
About a year after graduating high school, she married Jesse Kyle, with whom she had two daughters. The couple divorced, and in 1961, she married John “Sport” Willis II, who worked in the fingerprint lab at the Philadelphia Police Department and with whom she had a son.
Her family described her as a “fashionista” who loved to socialize, attend parties, and travel to jazz clubs and festivals around the country with John Willis. He died in 2016 after 55 years of marriage.
“She was a real social butterfly and had a lot of fun,” her daughter said. “She was gregarious, very fun-loving and had a lot of friends.”
With one of her sisters, she started a travel club called Les Femmes, for a group of women friends who took trips to Brazil, Spain, Mexico, and the Caribbean, among other places.
“She didn’t just sit still, she was always on the move,” Allen said.
As a teenager, she and her family made frequent trips to the beach in Atlantic City each summer. Mrs. Willis was photographed by noted photojournalist John W. Moseley, whose depictions of Black life in Philadelphia and beyond are now housed at the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University.
Mrs. Willis, with her parents and sisters Leola Wallace and Audrey R. Johnson-Thornton — who was known for restoring and maintaining Belmont Mansion in Fairmount Park — founded Timberlake Camp and Ski Lodge in Lenhartsville, Berks County.
She and her sisters worked with the Philadelphia Department of Recreation and community centers like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to bring Philadelphia children for two-week stays at the overnight camp, to get them out of the city, Allen said. They could enjoy swimming, archery, fishing, and learning about nature.
Mrs. Willis was a member of the Sewing Sophisticates, a club whose members gathered at each other’s homes to work on crafts, and she used her decorating and sewing skills to frequently change the decor of her West Mount Airy home.
“She reupholstered furniture. She was a collector of beautiful things. She transformed her house every year, moving all the furniture around, reupholstering, putting up new window treatments,” her daughter said.
Mrs. Willis was also a longtime 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, son John Willis III, seven grandchildren, one sister, one brother, and a host of other relatives and friends.
A funeral was held June 12.