New Wilmington, PA & Cairo, Egypt
It’s not uncommon to talk about a successful person as a natural-born actor, or writer, or musician, even though such beings are themselves uncommon, if not nonexistent. Willis McGill, on the other hand, is as close to being a natural born missionary – and educator – as one could possibly get.
It was the call to missionary service that brought his parents together. Flora Kerr met Ralph Gibson McGill (namesake of Westminster College’s McGill Library) at a couple of conferences for new missionary appointees of the United Presbyterian Church. Flora, from Santa Ana, California, was being assigned to India; Ralph, from New Wilmington, PA, was being sent to Egypt.
“My father took a fancy to my mother,” Rev. Willis McGill said, “but she didn’t particularly respond. When the conferences were done, everybody left to go back to their homes. My father wrote my mother a letter proposing marriage. She wrote back and turned him down. He bought a train ticket and went out to California. When he came back she was with him. They had been married out there.”
Instead of going to India, she went to Egypt with her new husband.
In those days, missionaries spent five years in their missionary work, then one year on furlough in the States, then seven years at their mission, then another year on furlough. The McGills were on furlough in Cleveland when Willis was born in 1912.
He grew up in Cairo, Egypt, where his father was on the faculty of the Evangelical Seminary.
A few miles east of Alexandria, the church had established Sidi Bishr, a camp in 11 acres of sand, half a mile in from the Mediterranean Sea. Intended to provide families some relief from the summer heat of central Egypt, it turned out to be the scene of tragedy for the McGill family when Willis was 14.
“One day a whole bunch of us went swimming. There developed a strong undertow that was taking people out. My father and one other missionary father dashed into the sea to rescue them. Both of the men were lost, and nobody else.”
When his mother returned to the States with Willis and his sister Lois, she decided to stay in New Wilmington rather than going back to California, because this area was a strong center of Presbyterian missionary activity.
While attending Westminster College, Willis met Anne McAuley, the daughter of Rev. and Mrs. Harry McAuley, pastor of the Brownlee Woods United Presbyterian Church in the south side of Youngstown.
“We decided pretty promptly that we were created for each other,” he said.
Willis graduated from Westminster, then attended the Presbyterian seminary in Pittsburgh. He and Anne were married after she got her degree from Westminster in 1937. They left that same year to serve as missionaries in Egypt.
Life in Egypt wasn’t always easy, but Rev. McGill derived a lot of satisfaction from his family and his work. Their first son, Willis (Billy) McGill II, was born in Egypt in 1941.
“The best thing about living there was having my wife and family with me. No matter where one lives, there are adjustments you have to make. But if one has happy relationships, and a family growing up healthy and normal, that has to be the center of satisfaction. I also got a lot out of teaching in the seminary.”
Their missionary work was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Driven by a strong sense of patriotism, Rev. McGill went to the American Army headquarters in Cairo to see if they needed a chaplain.
“They said they didn’t have a large enough number of soldiers to need a chaplain, but they were desperately in need of administrative help from people who knew English and Arabic.”
So in March, 1942, Rev. McGill took a leave of absence from missionary service. He was assigned to work with a Corps of Engineers unit.
“They built an installation they named Paine Field out in the desert near Cairo. It later became Cairo Airport.”
By July, 1942, the Germans and their Italian allies were threatening to break through to Cairo. All non-essential American military personnel and civilians were evacuated.
“Our first son was exactly one year old on the day we flew out of Cairo to a place in Eritrea, which was at that time part of Ethiopia. The Americans has set up an improvised airfield to facilitate their supplying the British forces. The camp employed local people who had their own language, but they also knew Arabic. So I was employed as the Arabic paymaster.”
Before long his infant son began to have intestinal problems, so Rev. McGill brought his family back to the States. During the next two years, he earned a Master’s Degree in Arabic and Islamics at the Kennedy School of Missions in Hartford, Connecticut.
Then the Missions Board sent Rev. McGill back to Egypt, but without his family because the war was still going on. That turned out to be quite a trip. He left New York on June 29, 1944, aboard a merchant ship bound for South Africa. He had to catch another ship from Durban up the African east coast to Suez. He didn’t get to Egypt until October 10.
His wife and son were able to join him the following September. His second son, John Gibson McGill (“Gib”), was born in 1946, and third son Gene Malcolm McGill (“Kim”) in 1948.
“For the most part we were in Cairo,” he said. “I taught at the seminary there for some years. I ran a program of student work and operated a student center. I was called to administrative work, with the ultimate goal of helping missionaries work themselves out of our jobs by training the Nationals to take over what we had initiated.”
The missionary work was interrupted once again by the Arab-Israeli war in 1967. Rev. McGill’s sons were in the States completing their education, and his wife left just before the war broke out.
“I was driving from my office in downtown Cairo to my home on the outskirts of when the sirens went off. I went into the lobby of a big apartment building where other people had gathered. I had my little Sears radio with me, and we could hear the Egyptian radio station announcing how Egypt was winning the war. We were all cheering. When the all-clear went off, I continued home. It wasn’t long before reality set in, and people knew that Egypt was by no means winning that war.”
Then President Nasser announced that the United States was actively involved in helping Israel. For their own protection, all Americans were rounded up and taken to two hotels in downtown Cairo.
“The populace had become very agitated against any Americans. A crowd of them shouting imprecations gathered outside the hotel. Presently an Egyptian army contingent with weapons came along. We didn’t know at first whether they were going to join the crowd and attack us, but it turned out they were there to defend us from the mob.”
The Americans were taken by train to Alexandria, and then by boat to Greece. From there Rev. McGill flew back to rejoin his wife in the United States.
He worked for a while with the Missions Board in New York. Then, after some time had elapsed, he was sent back again to Egypt to evaluate the public sentiment toward Americans.
“I checked into a hotel in Cairo and took a taxi to our central mission building. I had the taxi let me out just a hundred yards or so from the entrance. As I was walking, an Egyptian Muslim, whom I had known very well, who had a little shop across from my office, came out in the middle of the street and gave me the biggest hug you ever saw. What a sense of reassurance. When I got into the office, there was an Egyptian there who had handled dry cleaning work for us. When he saw me he flung himself into my arms. That was all very, very moving.”
After several more exploratory trips to Egypt, Rev. McGill and his wife resumed their missionary work there. They retired in 1977, taking up residence in a home they had purchased near New Wilmington.
“For quite a long stretch of time I had a string of invitations to speak at churches all over the place,” Rev. McGill said. “That was my main activity in retirement.”
Anne McGill passed away in 1996. Rev. McGill continued to live alone in their New Wilmington residence until Shenango on the Green retirement home was built. Then he moved there, and has been living there ever since, just a block away from the Westminster campus.
With his missionary work far behind him, Rev. McGill maintained his involvement in education.
“One of the satisfying things about my life for the past ten years is to be involved in what I call Westminster’s museum collection,” he said. “They have a noteworthy collection of museum artifacts, the most important of which is the authentic Egyptian mummy which was sent to them by an alumnus back around 1865 or 66.”
The articles are displayed in various rooms on campus from time to time.
“The doors are open to well-wishing donors who have museum-worthy artifacts tucked away in their attics or old trunks. Some have been coming in from a lot of sources. I hope that some day a generous person will make sure that they have a proper museum gallery, as well as a place for restoration and care of artifacts.”
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009