Rebecca Jones, special to the News-Times
HARKERS ISLAND — Melba Willis of Harkers Island has been around commercial fishermen her whole life. Her dad, husband and even her father-in-law worked on the water. She married her husband, Billy, in 1960 and they were together for 54 years before his death approximately six years ago. They had three sons – Kerry, Billy Joe and Stephen.
Being married to a commercial fisherman was a hard, yet rewarding life. Melba says they got through the years because they loved each other so. Most years, they made good money to feed their family, but there were what she called “dull” years. This meant that they were always having to be sure to “put back” money in the good years to cover the “dull” ones, the years that the ocean was not good to them.
Because of the nature of the business, it was hard to plan anything outside of fishing. Either you were out fishing or getting everything prepared to go back out fishing the next day. Melba pointed to the live oak tree in her yard and said, “I can just ‘see’ all those nets hung on those branches, drying for the next day’s work.” The job was their identity. It was their heritage. It was something beautiful and who they were.
Church life was and is important in the Down East communities. The Willis’ family and friends at church were who they connected to. Melba says she prayed every day for her family. She was proud of her heritage as a commercial fisherman’s daughter and wife. “There is dignity in it,” she says, and her faith gave her encouragement during the “dull” times.
Billy would get off the boat from working all day, get in his truck with some fish in some buckets, and many days Melba would see him drive right past their house. She knew he was heading to local families who needed some fish to eat those who were hungry. He would not take any money. One “dull” year, Melba prayed as she was concerned about their finances. They came out of church one day and found an envelope with $500 cash in it. No one would tell who gave it to them. After the person who gave it to them died, they finally found out it was someone they had helped along the way with food.
Billy did not choose to follow in his dad’s footsteps as a commercial fisherman. He joined the Coast Guard, but when he got out, he went back to help his dad because he was needed in order to keep the business going. When Billy and Melba’s three sons were grown, he sent them all to college. He let them know they could follow their dreams. Each son chose different professions. But Melba, still being a praying woman, kept asking God to look after their boys. All three sons eventually left their chosen professions and are now pastors. Melba said Billy told everyone before he died that his sons are fishermen, just fishers of men like Peter in the Bible.