Obituary of Mildred L. Willen
Mildred Willen: Psychotherapist,
gardener, great-grandmother and
longtime Northport resident
By Liz Willen
Mildred L. Willen, a psychotherapist and longtime Northport resident known for her warm smile, whimsical garden and love of family and friends, died Thursday at the age of 94. She is survived by her husband of 74 years, former Family Court Judge Morton Willen, along with three children, eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Her welcoming spirit, love of life and ability to listen intently endeared her to all who knew her, as did her optimism and generosity. In her spare time, she loved nothing more than spending time with family and friends, along with toiling in the constantly changing “official street garden,” in her front yard.
Born in 1929, Mildred – or Millie as she was known – grew up in Brooklyn and later the Bronx, the daughter of Jewish immigrants who had escaped Poland before the war. Her father Frank operated a sewing machine in the garment district, and for years commuted from the family’s railroad flat in Coney Island, where Millie developed her lifelong love of the ocean.
She later moved against her will to the Bronx, where she found inspiration reading books on the fire escape: “I was raised to expect little and enjoy what little I had,” she wrote in a collection of memories, but often noted that she never got over leaving the water. “My early years were spent in tiny apartments, without a telephone and without an automobile. New York City public schools and New York public libraries provided education and career opportunities otherwise beyond my reach or of my parents.”
Millie attended Washington Irving High School and wanted to study art, although she realized that it was her younger brother, Murray Reich, who had the real talent and went on to become an artist. She studied sociology at Hunter College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and met her future husband Morton in the Catskills. Their first date involved dancing, corn-beef sandwiches and cream sodas.
“I knew almost immediately that she was beautiful, interesting and I wanted to get to know her better,” Morton Willen recalled recently. “I said Hemingway. She said Proust. After that, it was easy.” Millie recalls “throwing in a little Shakespeare to impress. We talked books. We drove to Lake Kiamesha, parked, watched the moon over the lake, as corny and predictable as it could be.”
They dated all summer in Monticello, where Morty’s family owned two bungalow colonies. Morty, then an undergraduate at City College, was selling ice- cream from a truck called “Ice-Cream Morty,” while Millie worked as a governess. In subsequent years, she recalled hating ice-cream because Morty had given her “all the mushy ones.”
After that summer, Millie returned to Hunter and Morton enlisted in the Army, where he was stationed for a year in Japan. Upon his return, he asked his older sister Esther to help him find Millie. They corresponded and resumed dating in the Bronx. Calling her was a challenge: he had to offer a neighborhood kid a dime to run to her apartment and tell her that Morty would call her at the local candy store.
They married in 1949: Millie wearing “saddle shoes, bobby sox and a wedding ring on my finger,” as she rode the subway from the Bronx to college, while Morty enrolled in law school at St. John’s University. They bought their first ever home on Long Island’s Levittown for under $13,000, with help from the same GI bill that paid for Morton’s law school.
Although thrilled to have their own home with a yard, the Willens were upset by the restrictive nature of Levittown, one of the first suburbs to develop policies that kept minorities out. They became involved with CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality).
Millie went back to graduate school a few years later, earning a master’s degree in social work at Adelphi University. She worked with addicts at the now defunct Topic House before joining Geraldine Pedersen Krag clinic as a clinical psychotherapist and ultimately starting her own practice, retiring at the age of 85.
Millie finally got her dream of living on the water when the family moved to Northport in 1967 to a sprawling Victorian home with a widow’s walk and a tower room, once owned by an oyster captain. The house was divided into apartments at the time, and it took years to restore and fill with finds from antiques and garage sales: “
“Northport kids came in droves,’’ to parties in the years that followed,” Millie wrote. In her spare time, she loved reading, swimming, the ballet, birdwatching, walking through Northport and traveling. while constantly adding new flowers to her front yard garden of impatiens. hollyhocks, phlox, cornflowers and her favorite from Shakespeare, columbine, along with daffodils, tulips and bearded Iris. “In the spring, my garden glowed. People stopped by to tell me how happy my garden made them feel.”
Survivors include her husband, Morton, daughter Amy Spiros (Chris), and children Arianna (Luke), Matthew and Callie, all of Northport, along with great-grandchildren Benjamin and Miles; her daughter Liz Willen (Greg), of Brooklyn, and children Damon and Brendan, and son Joe (Kim), all of Northport, and children Rachel, Hannah and Grace; her sister-in-law Elizabeth Weatherford and nephew, Zeke Reich, an extended family in Israel and numerous nieces, nephews and friends.
In lieu of flowers, donations made be made in her honor to Housing Help, via this link or at Housing Help Inc., 91 Broadway, Ste10, Greenlawn, NY 11740, The League of Women Voters and the Northport Historical Society.
Religious Service at Nolan Funeral Home, 5 Laurel Ave. Northport, Friday February 9th at 10:30 a.m. followed by burial at Northport Rural Cemetery. Family will sit Shiva Starting after 1PM at the family residence.