Remembering Bruce Willats, college professor and spiritual seeker

A member of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, Bruce Willats was a fifth-generation Californian who had a rich love for his family, music and laughter.

Bruce Willats and his grandchildren. Photo: Courtesy family

Bruce Bosworth Willats, beloved husband, father, grandfather, brother-in-law, uncle, cousin and friend, passed away on April 7, 2020, from complications from myasthenia gravis. He was 85.

Bruce was a fifth-generation Californian with deep California roots. He was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 31, 1934, and grew up in L.A. and Laguna Beach. He lived with his parents, Harold and Lillian (Van Degrift) Willats, and his older sister, Marilyn Willats Pearson, who predeceased him. His early years included close connections with aunts, uncles and cousins. As a teenager in Laguna Beach he was part of early surfing culture, and with other surfing pioneers he founded (and played ukulele for) the band The Sons of the Surf.

He graduated from Stanford (class of 1956) where he founded the band The Nomads and met his first wife, Marilyn Beck. Bruce spent two years in the Marine Corps before he and Marilyn married in 1959. In 1961, they traveled for seven months in Asia, the Middle East and Europe before moving to New York City where Bruce earned his Masters of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary and spent time teaching in Connecticut. After returning to Berkeley in 1966 he attended the Graduate Theological Union where he received his Ph.D. in psychology.

Bruce taught psychology and religion at Dominican University in San Rafael for 17 years, also serving as the Director of Faculty and Curriculum Development, before moving to Laguna to care for his aging father and help run the family business, the Laguna Riviera Beach Resort that his parents built in the 1940s and which remained in the family until 2018. He continued his interest in post-secondary education through occasional educational consulting including with the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW) Network in both Canada and the US. Through ISW, he met his future wife Diane Morrison, then living in Victoria Canada.

While in Laguna Beach (1987-2008), Bruce connected with Laguna Beach High School friends, joined a Stanford Alumni Men’s Breakfast Club and helped organize LBHS and Stanford class reunions. Bruce was a member of the LB Presbyterian Church, the LB Hospitality Association, the local folk dancing club, and hosted many events in Laguna for friends and extended family, which often included group singing accompanied by ukulele playing. Diane joined him there for three years while on a leave of absence from her work in Victoria to complete doctoral studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Bruce served as Laguna Beach Rotary Club President and also participated with the Oak Bay Rotary Club during his many extended visits to Victoria, where he attended Oak Bay United Church, spent time with Canadian friends, and enjoyed outings with the local Volkssport Walking Club. Bruce was a long-time member of meditation and spiritual study groups in Laguna Beach, Victoria, and Berkeley and with members of a men’s group with whom he maintained close contact for over 30 years. Bruce explored many spiritual traditions and in his later years did the hard work of integrating the discipline of meditation practice and study into his daily life. He greatly valued the many good friends who supported him on his spiritual journey.

In 2007 Bruce married Diane Morrison, his partner of many years, and they moved to Kensington, CA, to be closer to his children and grandchildren. He loved his years in Kensington, particularly enjoying involvement in the lives of his grandchildren. Watching his playful spirit with them was a joy to experience. He was a member of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley and of several study groups through the Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Bruce and Diane continued to travel to Laguna and to Canada to visit their friends and family.

Over the past decade Bruce enjoyed many birthdays and holidays with his family, traveled to Scotland, Greece and Italy, and always looked forward to the two-month Buddhist retreats that fed his spiritual practice. He had a rich love for his family, music and laughter. He will be remembered for his wit, good humor, warmth and big heart, his intellect and curiosity, his broad knowledge of culture, sports and current events, and his abilities as a great listener and as an interesting conversationalist. He will be dearly missed.


Bruce is survived by his wife Diane, his daughter Amy and son-in-law Charles, his son Andy and daughter-in-law Auban, his son Dave and daughter-in-law Tanya, his grandchildren Grette, Kiera, Ellie, Kai, Anna, Franny, and Jordan, his former wife Marilyn, his sister-in-law and brother-in-law, Jean and Jim Jarrell, nephews Kort (wife Kimberly and sons Kristopher and Kameron) Pearson and Craig (wife Dana and daughter Niccole) Pearson, and many cousins.

A memorial service will be held later this year. Those wishing to be notified about the memorial should send an email to brucewillatsmemorial@gmail.com. Donations may be made in Bruce’s honor to Rotary International, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, or a charitable organization of your choice.