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Obituary of Alan N. Willer: Headed health science research organization

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 7, 2009 - "Where there's a Willer, there's a way," was the favorite phrase and guiding philosophy of Alan Willer. Eight years ago, Willer co-founded the Institute for Health and Science, a nonprofit organization devoted to funding research to look into and find treatment for diseases that do not get much attention. Using his surname in a play on words of the well-known adage was typical of Mr. Willer's humor.

"Alan was always lighthearted, even though his goals were serious," said Bruce Dyck, president of St. Charles Region Midwest BankCentre and an institute board member. "He was very intelligent. He was driven. And he had a passion for the organization's mission of providing awareness for 'orphan' diseases.

"But he did everything in a nice way, with a big smile on his face. He was a really bright light."

Mr. Willer died May 4 suddenly in his Oakville home of an apparent heart attack. He was 59. His funeral Mass will be celebrated Friday morning.

Mr. Willer was not a scientist. He was trained as an engineer, earned an MBA and spent nearly 20 years working for a major utility company. Then, in 2001, after two years of consulting with scientific, health-care and utility clients on various projects, he and consulting partner James J. McEnroe were persuaded by one of those clients to embark upon a greater mission: searching for and funding gaps in medical research.

With a small staff of five, the institute manages medical research grants and provides more than a million dollars a year in funding for diseases that have a low profile. The institute's vice president for research, Gerald "Jerry" Rupp, credits Mr. Willer's management efforts for much of the organization's success.

"We worked as a single team; it was a tag team event on a daily basis," said Rupp, a molecular biologist who has been with the institute for more than four years. "Alan was the consummate businessperson, and he was personally caring and congenial. He worked to help others improve their job and themselves."

Mr. Willer was born in St. Louis, living south of Tower Grove Park until his family moved to Affton when he was 14. He graduated from St. John Vianney High School in 1968. He graduated in 1972 from Washington University with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, and earned an MBA with an emphasis in finance from Saint Louis University in 1974.

He joined Union Electric (now Ameren) as a supervising engineer in corporate planning in 1981. When he left Ameren in 1997, he was manager of division marketing. He soon became a partner with James McEnroe in James J. McEnroe and Associates Inc. After two years, he and McEnroe formed the Institute for Health and Science.

Mr. Willer was actively involved with many civic boards and organizations, including the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Missouri State Chamber of Commerce committee on economic development. He worked closely with numerous local and regional economic development agencies and served in all officer capacities while part of the Electric Utility Market Research Council. He was a longtime member of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Roman Catholic Church.

"A wonderful thing happened last year," said Mr. Willer's wife, Patricia Willer, with some pride in her voice. "Alan was inducted into Sigma Pi Fraternity along with our youngest son, Ryan."

He was the fifth Willer to join the Delta Zeta Chapter of Sigma Pi; all four of his sons, who all attended the University of Missouri-St. Louis, are members. It was just the kind of thing Patricia Willer expected of her extroverted husband.

"He always put me and the children first, almost to a fault," she said. "I picked out a good husband and a wonderful dad."

Mr. Willer's hard work was sometimes softened by music: classic rock, new country ("not that twangy stuff," his wife said) and the smooth jazz sound of such groups as Acoustic Alchemy. It helped him stay focused on his mission.

"The premise of the institute and what it stands for was of supreme importance to Alan," Rupp said. "He was committed and said that he'd do everything he could not to let this concept die. That's his legacy, and our tribute to him is to be equally committed to carrying the mission forward. We are now setting up the Alan N. Willer Memorial Endowment Fund."

Memorial contributions to the Institute for Science and Health, 300 Hunter Ave., Suite 110, 63124, would be appreciated.

Mr. Willer was preceded in death by his parents, Irvin and Mary Willer.

In addition to his wife of 32 years, Patricia S. Willer (nee Sinclair), among Mr. Willer's survivors are his four sons and frat brothers, Grant (Michelle) Willer, Matthew Willer, Scott Willer and Ryan Willer, all of St. Louis; his sister Marilyn (Thomas) Folkl of St. Louis, and his mother-in-law Faye (the late Marvin) Sinclair of St. Louis.

Services for Mr. Willer will begin at 9:30 a.m. on Friday (May 8) at Kutis South County Chapel, 5255 Lemay Ferry Road (at Butler Hill) and proceed to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Catholic Church, 4900 Ringer Road, for 10 a.m. Mass. His remains will be interred at Resurrection Cemetery.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.