As early as 1890, Sarah Mildred Willmer (1881–1949) was delivering dramatic monologues, eventually appearing in northeastern, midwestern, and western venues and billing as “the Sarah Bernhardt of the Lyceum.” One of her frequent performances was “The Sign of the Cross” by Wilson Barrett. In 1907, she met physicians William and Lena Sadler (Lena was the niece of cornflakes co-inventor John Harvey Kellogg), and they became friends. This promotional flyer shows that they often appeared together on the Chautauqua circuit. As the 25 Aug. 1912 Chicago Tribune documented, Willmer married minister Edward V. Bond at the Sadler home in Chicago (Bond died in 1915 from a cardiac problem).
In July 1918, the Lyceum Magazine noted that Willmer would be going overseas as a YMCA entertainer, refusing a salary and cancelling a 10-week Chautauqua contract for the opportunity (31). In Aug. 1918, Willmer sailed for France. Her account in the 22 Dec. 1918 Chicago Tribune (4) describes harrowing experiences:
“Are you afraid to go to the front?” [asked the YMCA man]
“That’s where I want to go.”. . . .
I was whirled over a thin white ribbon of a road through the valley of the Meuse and we arrived at a town. There were no inhabitants except American troops. . . . An officer moved out of his room and gave it to me. . . . rats—O, plenty of them, big as cats, that would scamper all over the place and me at night, and snuggle down in my warm blankets. None ever bit me, but one morning, as I woke, eight of them jumped from my bed. . . . .
Aided by friendly officers—entirely outside regulations and unknown to the ‘Y’ man in charge of the base—I would dress in a soldier’s uniform and go up to the front, in total darkness.
I went up one night, in a darkness which was uncanny; with shells bursting about us, with machine guns and all the other death dealing agencies actively at work, with pandemonium literally let loose, to a first aid dressing station.
O, it was horrible. The boys were brought in on litters, all in darkness, and as the surgeons and attendants passed along they would flash a little light on one for a brief instant, then on another, and in this way they had to be cared for. I wondered if it was right for me to be there, and I was frightened, O so frightened, but I did not dare to let that be known, for I was supposed to be a man. I helped with the boys who were brought in, and saw vividly the horror of it all, the lads dying and suffering, and had to remain quiet.
She also related an episode of servicemen hearing about the Armistice:
An officer—a colonel—entered the place. . . . . He flashed a smile, held up his hand, and said:
“Boys, she’s signed.” . . .
Immediately a mighty cheer went up, and then those 2,000 lads sang the Doxology as I never heard it sung before—and never expect to again. And then this officer said to me: “Miss Wilmer [sic], if you have a breath left in you, will you recite the ‘Salute to the Flag’?”
I did. Every hat went off in an instant, and then the men sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” . . . One young fellow said:
“Gee, ain’t it great?”
And then, in a sorrowful tone:
“And my buddy killed only this morning and can’t be here for it.”
Willmer was gassed twice—once at Verdun and once in the Argonne forest. The latter—a dose of chlorine gas “burning in my lungs”—necessitated her return to Chicago in December 1918, where she stayed with the Sadlers. The Chicago Tribune account credits her with receiving a Croix de Guerre, but this is not listed in the YMCA’s 1918–19 Yearbook and Official Roster of the Young Men’s Christian Associations of Canada and the United States of America with the other decorations received by YMCA personnel.
By April 1919, she was back on the performance circuit and continued throughout the 1920s. Her 14 July 1949 obituary in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY) indicates that she opened a confectionary in Rochester in 1928, which failed in the depression. She became involved in social work and worked with the deaf on lip-reading and speech.
Her obituary includes a married daughter, Elizabeth Ann Wales, with 1930 and 1940 census records indicating a 1921 or 1922 birthdate. However, as newspaper clippings show that Willmer was maintaining a busy touring schedule in the early 1920s, it is likely the child was adopted. The obituary also lists a granddaughter, Dianna Kathleen Wales.