William Roger Willis 1929 – 2011

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-By Jaime Willis

“That man is a success –
who has lived well, laughed often and loved much;
who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of children;
who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
who leaves the world better than he found it;
who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it;
who looked for the best in others and gave the best he had.”

Jaime and Grandpa Willis, October 2010

My grandfather, William Roger Willis, known as Roger or “Gpa,” passed away yesterday, May 4, 2011 after a ten-year battle with cancer. I’d like to take a few minutes this morning to share a few things I learned from Gpa.
Never Stop Learning
One of my fondest memories is of “bellying up to the bar” in the kitchen late at night (Willis’ are a nocturnal clan), watching Jeopardy or the news, flipping through the paper, and enjoying a late night snack (popcorn, chips and salsa, or a bowl of ice cream being the favorites). Gpa had a drawer next to his assigned barstool filled with his reference materials. As we talked about this or that news item or Jeopardy clue, he’d pull out the atlas and point out the locations, ways to get there, and other pertinent facts. He was never afraid to learn something new, although he was incredibly skeptical about his grandkids ubiquitous use of technology in all its varieties. :)
Make the Best of Your Situation
Gpa and Mr. Finger
Gpa lost the tip of his left index finger in an industrial accident more than fifty years ago. The doctors decided to create a soft fleshy pad at the top of the remaining finger, which healed so perfectly, it looked like he was just born with a shortened phalange.
I loved that stubby finger — it totally captivated me as a kid. Gpa used the finger to his greatest advantage by drawing a little smiley face on the tip and talking to us kids and grandkids with the little finger.
I would sit next to Gpa at the kitchen counter, grab his hand, and pet his little finger hello or goodbye.
When You Look Good, You Feel Good, You Do Good
Gpa dressed to impress and rarely went anywhere without a suit jacket on. This ‘dress code’ permeated my childhood, as I did not realize that one could wear sweatpants out of the house until I got to college.
As I grew up, Gpa would chide me for not looking my best, letting me know that I’d “do a little better if I wore makeup” when I left the house. I don’t know if I fully subscribe to Gpa’s Dress Code, but I cannot deny that my day typically goes better when I dress nicely and take care in my appearance.
Stay Active
Gpa ran his own auto repair store for more than 30 years before retiring and then promptly starting a lawn-mowing business to “stay active.” He rode motorcycles his whole life and went to a weekly dance. It really wasn’t until the last months of his life that he stopped doing physical labor. He wasn’t always in the best shape or health, but it never stopped him from getting around and getting stuff done.
Lend a Helping Hand
My dad also runs an auto repair store (AutoTech Service in Ada, MI) — he forged his own path after managing Gpa’s second shop for a number of years. After Gpa retired, he was back in the “shop” several times a week helping my dad run parts, answer the phone, and kibitzing with customers. Just because he was retired didn’t mean he couldn’t help out, and so he did.
Gpa and Gma also boarded many of my cousins and I in their home anywhere from a few days to a few years, in the case of my younger brother. I know that accommodating teens and young adults was probably not always a barrel of laughs, but they were happy to do so. It wasn’t just a bed, either — I think we’ve all borrowed a car, a piece of furniture, or even clothes (in my dad’s case) from Gma and Gpa.
Gpa was also a very active member in Ambucs, a community organization that helped support kids with physical and mental disabilities.
In my last visit with Gpa two weeks ago and it was clear that he wasn’t doing well. He still greeted me with a big hug and tried to interact as best he could with the family in town for the Easter holiday. Late on Sunday evening, just before I left his house on my way back home, he became startlingly lucid. He sat up in his chair, began watching the news on television and demanded a bowl of popcorn. As my Gma and Aunt debated whether or not Gpa should have popcorn, Gpa chimed in on his behalf. “You’ll get me a bowl of popcorn,” he stated firmly, “or I’ll get it myself!” Then he went on to comment briefly on the news, just like always. I am so glad that I had a chance to save that one final memory of my Gpa.

Love you Gpa!

2 thoughts on “William Roger Willis 1929 – 2011

  1. This was a really great tribute to your grandpa. It's hard for me to think of him being call Grandpa. To me just a good ole boy. I remember that big smile just like in these photos. Kind of mischievious. I'm sure you will miss him. I havent seen him in years but i remember. Love Aileen (Cousin)

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