Lilliam Kingsbury graduated with honors with a chemistry degree from Wayne State University at only 19, after immigrating to the United States from Cuba. Later, with three boys in tow, she went on to earn a master’s degree and a PhD in statistics.
“She never graduated from high school,” her husband, William Kingsbury, said. “She went right from Cuba’s grammar school into college. She started college at 15 years old. She was the smartest person I have ever known.”
Lilliam was a distinguished professor of statistics and advanced mathematics, specializing in the field of biostatistics. She was elected by her peers to be president of the American Statistical Association. So, when she was hit with the news that she had a malignant glioblastoma tumor in her brain in September 2018, the statistician side of Lilliam understood better than anyone what the diagnosis meant, according to her son, Masonic Villages CEO William. “Bill” L. Kingsbury.
“She knew exactly what the odds were of surviving, and they were not good,” he said. “Even though her prognosis was dire, she never lost faith or hope. She was determined to enjoy life as long as she could. She was amazing.”
Lilliam died at home on Nov. 30, 2019, at the age of 72, after being cared for by Masonic Village Hospice over the span of about 16 weeks. The compassion and care shown by Hospice team members to the whole family, which included his father and two brothers, Scott and Russ, was truly remarkable, Bill said.
“Just the experience of them having helped other people through very difficult circumstances was reassuring,” he said. “Of course, it’s tough and emotional, but there’s a very spiritual component to hospice.”
“Everyone from Hospice went above and beyond,” William said. “They knew what I was going through. They made me feel comfortable. They would come and do her nails, and I would get an hour or so to go to the store. I really appreciated that.”
Bill remembers fondly how one of his mother’s caregivers discovered his father loved pies. She made him his favorite, a cherry pie.
“That was so important to my dad,” he said. After Lilliam passed, Hospice staff continued to check on the family and provide grief support.
An Organic Start to a Blessed Union
While earning her bachelor’s degree at Wayne State, Lilliam met William in her organic chemistry class. The two fell in love and were married for 52 years.
“The secret to our marriage is we were like yin and yang,” William said. “We weren’t exactly the same, so we complemented each other very well.”
While Lilliam was pursuing her PhD in statistics, she taught mathematics at Saint Joseph’s University and then Villanova. She helped grow a tiny start-up into one of the world’s largest clinical research organizations and later joined a large pharmaceutical company as executive vice president.
William led the oncology and anti-infective research and development areas of what is now GlaxoSmithKline. The couple purchased a beach house in Wilmington, N.C., in 2004, two years before William retired. He still resides there today.
Even after retiring, Lilliam never stopped really “working,” since she always liked helping people.
“If any of us needed anything, she’d jump on a plane and be there,” Bill said. “She was an amazingly generous person and one of deep faith. She found joy and humility in serving her church as a Eucharistic minister.”
She was a true “Renaissance woman” who enjoyed and excelled at many different activities and hobbies, William said. She played piano, which helped soothe her following her diagnosis and the first of three brain surgeries. She loved music of all sorts, from Cuban to country. She painted. She was a whiz with a sewing machine, making professional quality curtains, cushions and even clothing. She devoured books and loved to dance.
“She was really talented in almost everything she did,” William said. “When I was in graduate school, she made my sports coats for me. When the kids were young, she made her own dresses. She could do anything.”
Lilliam also really enjoyed traveling. She and William invited each of their nine grandchildren to take a trip with them when they reached 10 years of age. Just before her diagnosis, she had taken their youngest grandchild to the Galápagos Islands. The couple then traveled back to Wilmington to shore up the beach house because a hurricane was forecasted. Lilliam was having trouble with words and articulating what she wanted to say.
“The doctor said she may be having mini-strokes and to take her immediately to the hospital,” William said. “The CT scan showed she had a tumor. We drove back to Pennsylvania to Jefferson Hospital, where she was treated.”
Even when chemotherapy, radiation and surgery failed to shrink the tumor, Lilliam never complained about her condition or her prognosis.
“To be sure, she wished she had more time here with us,” Bill said. “But she felt lucky and blessed right to the end.”
As a proud Mason and Past Master of Melita Lodge No. 295, Philadelphia, Bill wanted to place his mother with Masonic Village Hospice, a place that deeply reflects his own Masonic values. He knew she’d receive great care.
“The Masonic fraternity has shaped our charities,” he said. “I think the Hospice program itself is exceptional because of that Masonic culture.”
He shudders to think how difficult it would have been for the family to cope through losing their matriarch without the help of Hospice.
“We were completely unequipped to deal with the emotional hurricane that was taking place,” Bill said. “The four of us, my dad included, were unapologetic and proud mama’s boys. She was the glue that kept everything together. The Hospice team provided stability and comfort.”
“It’s not a long time that they touch your life, but you are so vulnerable, and their impact is so profound.”