A life of service
Navajo Code Talker Frank Chee Willetto is remembered by memorial speakers
By Noel Lyn Smith
PUEBLO PINTADO, N.M., July 5, 2012
(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)
O n a table covered by a Pendleton code talker blanket, the framed photographs of Navajo Code Talker Frank Chee Willetto Sr. displayed his life as a father, hard worker and good man.
Willetto, 87, died June 23 at his home here.
He was Bit'ahnii (Folded Arms Clan), born for Tódích'íi'nii (Bitter Water Clan). His chei was Ta'neeszahnii (Tangle Clan) and his nálí was Naakai dine'é (Mexican People Clan).
"He never really wanted to shine in the light," Marcella Willetto said about her father.
Still he shared his stories with family, friends and during countless presentations he made through his work with the Navajo Code Talkers Association and in service as a tribal official.
He traveled the country, with Washington, D.C., being his favorite place to visit, and participated in parades across the Navajo Nation.
"We hit every parade, I think," Marcella said with a chuckle.
As a father, she said, he never scolded his children. Instead he told them he was proud and they did a good job.
In the two weeks that have followed her father's death, Marcella said the family continues to be OK but there are the moments when they miss him.
For Marcella, she misses his presence. Whenever she was in town, she would buy snacks or supplies for her father to take on his travels.
"We were very proud of him," she said.
Family, friends and the community gathered June 28 to remember Willetto at a memorial service at Tse Yi Gai High School.
During the three-hour service, dignitaries reflected on Willetto's role as a tribal and community leader and also on his service as a code talker.
Many of the leaders spoke about their interactions they had with Willetto on the local and tribal level.
Former Interim Chairman Leonard Haskie recalled working at the Counselor Chapter House when he first met Willetto, who was a Council delegate at the time.
Haskie said Willetto was one of his heroes and had encouraged him to enter the political arena. They eventually served on the Council's Economic Development Committee together.
"We will all miss Frank - his friendship, his guidance, his counseling," Haskie said.
Like Haskie, Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie, who represents Pueblo Pintado, was mentored by Willetto.
The up-and-coming politicians treated Willetto like a "father figure," Tsosie said, then commented on the number of people gathered at the service.
"You ran into the first traffic jam in Pueblo Pintado and you have to thank Frank Chee Willetto for that," he said. "He wanted nothing but progress for his people, his community."
Among the community projects Willetto advocated for was the construction of Tse Yi Gai High School and a new bridge to ease travel from the school to Navajo Route 9.
At the national level, Willetto traveled to Newport News, Va., to perform a blessing before the building of the nuclear submarine USS New Mexico in 2008. He was also at the White House when President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act in 2009.
Former Council Speaker and Vice Chairman Edward T. Begay spoke about Willetto's service on the Council, where he served from 1974 to 1986.
"We affectionately called him in the Council chamber 'Frank Chee,'" Begay said.
It was common for delegates to seek advice from Willetto, he said.
"We encouraged each other how would be the effective way to lead and guide the Navajo people," Begay said.
In 1986, Willetto was elected president of Pueblo Pintado Chapter, a position he served in until his death.
From August 1997 to January 1998, he was appointed interim vice president in the administration of President Milton Bluehouse Sr.
While many of the tributes focused on Willetto's leadership, Navajo Code Talker Association President Peter MacDonald Sr. spoke about Willetto's service as a code talker.
As a board member of the association, which Willetto joined in 1988, he shared the dream of creating the National Navajo Code Talker Museum and Veterans Center.
It was Willetto who nominated MacDonald to serve as association president after the death of longtime president Keith Little in January.
"After the vote and I was elected to be president of the association," MacDonald said. "I told him that I would need him to be by my side not realizing that he was very close to leaving us."
Willetto was born June 6, 1925, and was raised in Crownpoint where he attended Crownpoint Boarding School from kindergarten to eighth grade.
He enlisted in the U.S. Marines 6th Division in January 1944 and received eight weeks of code talker training before serving in the Pacific Theater in Saipan and Okinawa.
After returning from World War II, he worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs roads department then in the dormitory at Pueblo Pintado Boarding School until 1974.
Willetto received the silver Congressional medal in 2001 at a ceremony in Window Rock.
A special moment at the memorial service came when Steven Sandoval, one of Willetto's grandsons, gave the eulogy.
"My grandfather was an interesting guy," Sandoval said. "I won't pretend to know what he was thinking when I talked to him."
Sandoval said his grandfather served on the Eastern Navajo Land Commission, the Navajo Tribal Council's Advisory Committee, Navajo Housing Authority and Economic Development Committee.
Willetto was a board member of the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry and Navajo Arts and Crafts and was appointed to the Navajo Supreme Judicial Council to serve as judge.
He was also the Navajo area representative for the National Indian Council on Aging from 1987 to 2006.
"His personal philosophy was 'to serve and assist the Navajo people with the vast knowledge that I possess through the experiences of my lifetime,'" Sandoval said.
Willetto was buried with full military honors June 29 in the Santa Fe National Cemetery in Santa Fe, N.M.
He is survived by his common-law wife, Shirley Nelson, 13 children, 33 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren and seven great-great-grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Eleanor Willetto.
Willetto is the fourth code talker to die this year, after Keith Little, of Crystal, N.M.; Jimmie Begay, of Sawmill, Ariz.; and Samuel Tso, of Lukachukai, Ariz.