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Alice Putnam Willetts died peacefully in her home on Saturday, June 6, 2020, at the age of 94. Affectionately known as “Putty” by her family and many friends, this amazing lady devoted most of her life to “Our Town,” the community of Swarthmore.
Throughout her life, the well-being and quality of life of Swarthmore’s students and residents, both young and old, were always her priority. With seemingly endless energy, creativity, kindness loyalty and love, she worked all of her life to keep Swarthmore a wonderful place for people of all ages. She has been respected, loved and cherished by so many in the community who consider her a part of their families.
Putty was born in 1926 at Taylor Hospital. Both her maternal and paternal grandparents had arrived in Swarthmore by the year of 1890, and both of her parents, Allen and Gladys Putnam, attended Swarthmore High School and were also very involved in the community. Among their involvements in Swarthmore, Putty’s mother served as President of the Woman’s Club and was active in the Player’s Club, while her father belonged to a Swarthmore Men’s Quartet and sang regularly in the Christmas Nativity Pageant. When Putty was born, her first home was 501 Yale Avenue, where her maternal grandparents lived. She lived her first few years there, moving after several years to 234 Benjamin West Avenue and then to 317 Maple Avenue (until she was 14) and then onto her paternal grandmother and aunt’s home on Lafayette Avenue. She grew up in Swarthmore surrounded by family: “an Italian artist grandfather, a very proper English grandmother, an opera-singing aunt, a handsome young uncle, and a dear great aunt.
I was very lucky.”
Putty graduated from Swarthmore High School in 1943. While there, she played four years of varsity field hockey (captain her senior year), varsity basketball and varsity lacrosse. She served as her class secretary and was a member and secretary of the National Honor Society during both her junior and senior years. She participated in the Student Council, Glee Club, chorus and yearbook, and chaired her senior prom. She was awarded a scholarship to Temple University, from which she graduated _magna cum laude_ with a B.S. in Science in 1947. While at Temple, she played four years each of varsity field hockey, basketball, and lacrosse.
During her athletic career, Putty earned impressive credentials and played on teams outside of her own schools. She was a member of the United States Field Hockey Team for ten years and was the captain in 1955. For twelve years, she was on the U.S. Lacrosse Team, and was captain of that team in 1955. She was a member of the U.S. Field Hockey Touring Team to the British Isles. Reflecting her accomplishments and skill in these areas, she was elected to seven halls of fame: Temple University; Delaware County; Pennsylvania State; Pennsylvania Lacrosse; United States Field Hockey; United States Lacrosse, and Strath Haven as a Charter Member.
Putty chose a career in teaching and coaching. She taught at Swarthmore High School from 1947 through 1954, leaving to work at both Swarthmore College and the Shipley School. She then continued at Swarthmore High School from 1962 through 1983, moving to Strath Haven in 1984 when the schools merged, continuing to teach and coach until 1986. In many cases, she taught and coached three generations of the same family Throughout this time, Putty lived in her home on College Avenue, and for the first part of her teaching career she shared the home with her fellow teacher and dear friend, Caroline Baker. When Caroline passed away, Putty remained very close with Caroline’s family, considered by the Baker’s to be a very special family member.
While at Swarthmore High School, Putty made numerous changes and contributions, many of which continue to impact the Strath Haven program, and all of which made lasting impressions on her own students and athletes. At the High School, she originated and ran the Girl’s Athletic Association, which sponsored various Mother-Daughter and Father-Daughter events, as well as other special morale-oriented projects. She revived the weekly intramural program for girls, the weekly school assembly, introduced the Girls’ Gymnastic Program, and made Tennis and Track into Varsity programs for girls. She coached three Varsity and Junior Varsity teams each year and oversaw sometimes as many as four additional teams below the JV Level so that all interested athletes could be on a team and included in the competitive events. She encouraged participation by students in all areas of sports and academics.
Academically, Putty created a Marriage and Family course for the senior girls, inviting community members to come in and speak. In her Health class, she established a format wherein each senior girl could spend the bulk of the year researching a personally selected topic, and then an entire class was devoted to her individual presentation to the rest of the class. These are only some of the many programs and initiatives that Putty originated and then managed.
It was perhaps not the sheer number of contributions and activities that Putty began or maintained at Swarthmore High School that so profoundly impacted her students and athletes. Rather, it was the values she incorporated in both her teaching and coaching. Throughout her coaching, she emphasized sportsmanship, working together and respect for others. She inspired her students and athletes to give well beyond 100%. “Intestinal Fortitude” and “There is no such word as ‘no’!” are phrases that remain in the minds of all of her athletes and students, and represent philosophies that have served many well throughout their life experiences. Putty required that everyone do their best and promoted a strength of character and kindness between her students that created bonds and contributed to successes of many who were a part of her programs.
When Putty retired from her teaching and coaching career in 1986, she did not retire her spirit of contributing to the community. In fact, she became even more involved in the town. Her involvements, awards and contributions within Swarthmore, since that time, include the following:
Putty also founded two very active organizations in Swarthmore for senior citizens. She was the co-founder of Swarthmore Senior Citizens Association, which she began in 1984 with her fellow teacher-retiree Irma Zimmer. This organization hosts the Gathering Place programs held every Wednesday, with a different program each week. She also founded The Dew Drop Inn which was an intergenerational center in the Village. Seniors and young people met at the Dew Drop for games, including serious bridge, various types of lessons, discussions with Swarthmore College students, art shows, and other activities that brought people within the community together.
These organizations are representative of Putty’s commitment to supporting senior citizens who chose to continue living in Swarthmore. Both the Dew Drop Inn and the Gathering Place Programs were successful and continue in somewhat different forms at SSCA's location at the Swarthmore United Methodist Church, where they mean a great deal to many people, particularly those living alone. Many friendships can be attributed to Putty’s hard work starting and supporting these institutions.
Putty was always thinking about what could be done for Swarthmore. She initiated a great deal of change, but always with the goal of maintaining what was good about the community. She loved local traditions, as they serve to unify Swarthmoreans and give meaning to the sense of community. She is clearly responsible for many of ours. When Putty described her own relationship with the town of Swarthmore, she said “I am dedicated to a town–a special town–one that has given so much to me for so many years, and to my family before me for almost 100 years.” The town gave a lot to Putty and she truly devoted herself to giving back to the community. She touched countless lives. She will be sorely missed by all who had the privilege of knowing her. She was a unique, invaluable, beloved member of “Our Town.”
A memorial service will be held for Putty, most likely in the Spring of 2021, due to the circumstances surrounding Covid-19. The date will be publicly announced well in advance.
I’ve never known anyone like Putty. Putty always called the Gathering Place bakers “angels”, and one year she gave out little angel figurines as a thank you. I feel like she looked for ways to lift you up and share your gifts with others and with the town as a whole. She wanted people to always be making new friends.
Putty became my beloved hero soon after I had moved here in 2004 from Lower Merion. As soon as I showed up at the Dew Drop Inn, she welcomed me with her lovely smile and open arms—an appreciated contrast to the atmosphere at the Strathaven condo, where it took me, an introvert, years to make friends.
Watching Putty “running the show” with love and constant new ideas of how to
bring people, young and mainly old, together was a joy. And playing all kinds of games at the DDInn, I met other people and so, thanks to Putty, soon felt
comfortable in my new hometown.
In early 2007, after the official opening of the Dew Drop Inn, I collected Putty’s
loose photos and proceeded to make a scrapbook for her, while subsequently
taking pictures at the DDInn and the Gathering Place to be added to the album. It mirrors many events at both places from 2007 thru 2019, when we closed the DDInn. Putty greatly treasured it (now located at the Methodist Church), and I was happy to do my small part in valuing her endless giving.
When Putty resigned from acting as host at the Dew Drop Inn, I started visiting
her regularly at her home, where we always had lively discussions, as her mind
was sharp till the very end. In 2016, I was happy to be invited to her grand 90’s B-
day party organized by her devoted, out-of-town friends Dan and Laurie. Listening
to countless, heartfelt speeches by many of her life-long friends, Putty was
thrilled to participate at her “early memorial”, as she thankfully called it.
My inextinguishable love for Putty was not marred by our opposite views on
politics, and I will miss her dearly. Rest in peace, Putty, after a life well lived!
Putty was instrumental in SSCA's founding and in getting us to where we are today. While her legacy will live on for a long time, our memory of her is quite vivid as she maintained an interest in all we were doing until very recently. I felt privileged to have gotten to know her in my few years here, and hope that we can all keep her vision alive in Swarthmore.
A remembrance: A group of us went to visit Putty this past December following our program at the Gathering Place with the Silvertones, so we were all in the spirit. In addition to acknowledging the holiday, we presented Putty with framed drawings of her beloved Dew Drop Inn and of one of her house which were so meticulously drawn and graciously donated by Bill Menke. Putty seemed to enjoy every minute of it and amazed us by recollecting details of where people lived and to whom each was related from long, long ago, correcting a few of us who have many years to go to catch up to her!
I'm very sorry to hear about Putty's passing. She introduced me to the Seniors group (via bridge) when I started visiting Swarthmore over a decade ago. She was always warm and welcoming, supportive and interested, and always happy to hear from me.
Putty seemed unstoppable, but I guess none of us are.
Putty was a remarkable gift to this community. We were blessed to have her in out midst for so many years. She touched so many of us directly and through our children God bless you Putty and thank you.
Putty lived a very good and inspired life, and she gave so much back to the community and her friends, and the people she cared about and worried about. She was a strong woman with strong opinions and ideas that she always followed up on… She will be missed big time.
Thanks for Putty's life and for her vision how to help the aging in our larger communities. I will miss her wisdom deeply.
Putty was the only woman I know who is in the USA Lacrosse Hall of Fame (1998) and the Field Hockey Hall of Fame (1988).
Putty was a member of both the All-American U.S. Lacrosse Team and the All-American Field Hockey Team for 10 years, and was Captain of both teams at the same time.
Not a bad accomplishment for one person in one extraordinary lifetime.
Back in May of 2016, about a week before the College opened the Inn at Swarthmore, my office phone rang, and Putty's name showed up on my caller ID. Although I had only met Putty once before, I knew enough that if she was calling me, I had better take the call. When I picked up the phone, after a few brief pleasantries, Putty got right to the point of her call. She said to me "I'm an old lady, and I've lived my whole life in Swarthmore. Given how excited I am about the opening of the Inn and its successful application for a liquor license, it would mean a lot to me if I could have the first drink at the bar." Fortunately, our liquor license had just been approved, so I immediately said yes to her request. After some back and forth, we set our date, a lunch meeting on opening day at the Inn. She was joined by her "nephew" and we had a photographer on hand from the Swarthmorean to document the historic event. We had a delightful time, and I learned more about Swarthmore and, more importantly, her love for the Borough and its people, over our lunch. And, she did indeed get to have the first drink at the Inn - albeit non-alcoholic due to her health restrictions. She will be sorely missed by all who had the pleasure of knowing her.
If you were personally touched by Putty Willetts, or feel that you have benefited from her years in our community, send your thoughts to SwarthmoreSeniors@gmail.com.