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Mary Katharine Geyer Willmott was born in Ironton, Ohio in 1897. She graduated with honours from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1919. In pursuit of a career as a missionary teacher, she obtained an M.A. degree from Teachers` College, Columbia University in 1920, with a specialty in Teaching English Literature. She met Leslie Earl Willmott while a student at Columbia, and joined him for a missionary career in China. In 1921 the Willmott couple arrived in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, where they stayed for Chinese language instruction the first year of their missionary duty. From 1922 to early 1927 they lived in Renshou (then spelled Jenshow), Sichuan (then spelled Szechuan), where Earl became the principle of the middle school. Renshou was a center of cross-stitch production, and it seems likely that Katharine began collecting cross-stitch textiles while living there. During their years living on the West China Union University (WCUU, now Sichuan University) campus in Chengdu, Katharine taught English language, composition, and poetry as a part-time teacher in the Foreign Languages Department. She also had a deep interest in Chinese literature. With Dryden Phelps, she co-translated into English many poems by famous Chinese poets. In 1982, a book of their translated poems was published in Hong Kong as “Pilgrimage in Poetry to Mt. Omei”. Katharine purchased the majority of her collection on the front porch of her home on the WCUU campus, where itinerant “curio” dealers visited on a weekly basis. According to Earl, she was especially fond of embroideries and porcelains, which she appreciated for their aesthetic value. Their home was decorated with Chinese scrolls and statues, while they used Chinese textiles and porcelains in their everyday household activities. Trunks full of more valuable antiquities were kept in the attic for occasional show to visitors, and as future “family treasures.” Beginning in the late 1930s, Earl and Katharine rejected the corrupt government of Chiang Kai Shek, instead welcoming the reforms and the honest government the progressives brought to the university campus. The turbulent economy during the years of war, revolution, and reform (1937-1952) presented increased opportunities for collecting antiquities. While Earl eschewed the bourgeois accumulation of goods, Katharine embraced the salvaging of Chinese culture. In 1952, Katharine and Earl were two of the last six Canadian missionaries to leave China. Before they left, the Willmotts deposited the most valuable of Katherine’s collection in the WCUU museum. Upon their return to Canada, Katharine and Earl worked to educate Canadians about China for the rest of their lives. Katharine loaned portions of her collection for exhibits, and presented slide lectures about Chinese arts and culture to interested groups. At the time of her death in December 1985, Katharine and Earl were residents of Vancouver where their son William had been a professor of anthropology at UBC. Upon Earl’s death six months later, the Willmott siblings divided Katharine’s collection among themselves. All four siblings, Margaret Joy, Donald, Richard, and William, donated much of their portions to MOA, while retaining personal favourites within their families.

Born: 1897
Died: 1985