April 12, 2024

Donald Gillmor Willhoit, a professor emeritus  with the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health who combined his deep faith with a love of scientific reasoning, died on March 7. He was 90 years old.

Dr. Donald Willhoit

Dr. Donald Willhoit

Born February 5, 1934, in Kansas City, Missouri, the precocious only child of Marjorie and Robert Willhoit quickly developed a mind for science and creative problem-solving. Long before he studied the health effects of radiation in the early years of the nuclear age, Don was a boy with a big curiosity.

His childhood inquisitiveness yielded important lessons: His Superman cape did not counteract gravity, for instance, and pulling floorboards from the attic to build a soapbox derby car would make Mom apoplectic. A series of mentors saw the potential in his experiments and helped channel his interests toward a lifelong love of learning that he would impart upon his children and grandchildren in turn.

At the urging of a high school teacher and others, he enrolled at William Jewell College, a Baptist school. There, he earned a degree in physics, deepened his faith and met his eventual wife of 59 years, Norma Katherine Norris Willhoit.

She loved his red hair, but he was sure his souped-up 1941 Ford and ducktail haircut had won her heart. They would go on to have — in Don’s words — four “lovely (but ornery at times)” children.

At William Jewell, a professor encouraged him to consider graduate school. With Norma at his side, he earned a master’s degree from the University of Washington and a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh.

In 1964, their young family arrived in Orange County, where they found a spiritual home in Binkley Baptist Church, and Don found a lifelong passion for Carolina sports, particularly basketball.

On campus at UNC, he joined the faculty of the School of Public Health, researching and teaching radiation biophysics. Later, he became the founding director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Health and Safety Office. Upon his retirement, he was named professor emeritus.

His legacy extends far beyond his professional life, however. Inspired by the social justice theology of the Rev. Robert Seymour, Willhoit served on the Carrboro Planning Board for eight years and on Orange County’s Board of Commissioners for 20, stewarding the area through a period of growth. He led with wit and pragmatism, and did not shy away from tough issues.

He served on a variety of other state and local boards, and he supported the Binkley congregation in a variety of roles, becoming a deacon at age 89.

Don was preceded in death by his wife and his parents. He is survived by his children, Mark Willhoit of Durham, North Carolina; Valerie Moore (David) of Columbia, South Carolina; Lynne Willhoit (Ritch Viola) of Arlington, Virginia; and Melissa Siler (William) of Charlotte, N.C.; as well as his former daughter-in-law, Paige Vinson. He is also survived by his grandchildren, Celeste Willhoit; Reed Moore (Elizabeth Koenig); Grace Moore (Haimin Yie); Thad Moore (Kristmar Muldrow); Olivia and Marco Viola; and Jacob and Alexander Siler; along with two great-grandchildren, Junhee Yie and Miriam Moore.

A Memorial Service will be held April 27 at Binkley Baptist Church at 1712 Willow Drive in Chapel Hill. In lieu of flowers, please consider a contribution to the Binkley Memorial Fund.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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