Willa Mae Odom Cato was born to loving parents, Rev. Willie Odom and Carrie Theus Odom in Minden on Oct. 1, 1929. She was welcomed by her older brother, W.D. Odom.
She began piano lessons from Mr. Emerson at the age of three. Her family did not own a piano, so she drew the keys on a formica table top and diligently practiced; imagining the music as she touched the hand-drawn keys.
Willa Mae graduated from Webster High School in 1948. By this time she had cultivated her gifts and talents of painting, sculpting and piano playing.
She applied for and was accepted into Southern University. While at Southern University, she enjoyed playing music for church choirs and jazz ensembles. She graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Education.
Willa Mae married and had two children, Robert Cook, Jr. and Jacquelyn Cook-Kyle. Her family was reared in Beaumont, Texas. Family was extremely important to her. She instilled church and education as a priority for her children.
Willa Mae played both the organ and piano for various churches in both Minden and Beaumont for more than 60 years. This talented pianist and painter continued a love for fashion by designing and sewing clothes for herself and customers.
During a time when many women were homemakers, this progressive woman taught at Carver Elementary and later worked as an administrator for the Jefferson County Community Action Service, a non-profit agency that provided social services for low-income groups.
After her children graduated from high school, she relocated to her hometown of Minden to help her father care for her sick mother.
Always a teacher at heart, she recognized a need for early education and decided to embark on this venue from her home. Word quickly spread about the foundation for learning she provided. Meanwhile, Willa Mae met and fell in love with Charles Cato. They soon married and broadened their family.
This entrepreneur started the first certified Montessori School owned and operated by a black woman in Minden. Cato's Cotton Candy Montessori students have gone on to graduate high school, college and have been successful in personal careers. These successes were fueled by a strong start of advanced academics at Cato's.
The memory of the life of Mrs. Willa Mae Cato will never die, but shall linger in the hearts and minds of all those she touched as she passed this way with her teaching, love, kindness and generosity.
She was preceded in death by her loving husband, Charles Cato, Dec. 23, 2012.
Those left to cherish her memory include a son, Robert A. Cook, Jr. Minden; a daughter, Jacquelyn A. Cook-Kyle (Joseph) Dallas, Texas; stepsons, George Cato, Gregory Cato, Lurinzo Thompson and Gerald Lewis; stepdaughter, Sharon Edwards; grandchildren, Terry, Jolyn (Gilberto), Julian (Priscilla), Jacques, Jacelyn, Mercedes and Jasmin; step-grandchildren, Alexis and Tamera; great-grandchildren, Cameron, Kelvin, Jirehn, Moxie, Jada, Luciano, Jacques, Jr. and Liliana; a host of nieces, nephews, other relatives and friends.
This remarkable woman has worn many hats: artist, musician, entrepreneur, teacher, wife, mother, sister, aunt, grandmother, great-grandmother and friend. We were honored to have her as the matriarch of our family and will miss her greatly.
Funeral services will be held Saturday, January 26 at 11:30 a.m. at New Light Baptist Church with Dr. T. L. Ward officiating. Interment will be in Sheppard Street Cemetery.
Visitation will held Friday, January 25 from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. in the chapel of Kennon's Mortuary with family hour from 6 until 7 p.m.