William R. WILLIS Jr.

WILLIS, JR., William R. Age 79, died Friday morning, July 30, 2010 at Vanderbilt Hospital after a courageous battle with cancer. Bill Willis was a "lawyer's lawyer" who had his fingers on Tennessee's legal and political pulse for more than five decades. While never a candidate for office himself, he served as a trusted campaign advisor and in the kitchen cabinets of mayors, governors and senators alike. But it was in his role as an attorney where his impact is most lasting and where his presence will be most deeply missed. He had a profound and abiding love of the law and he represented the powerful and the indigent with an equal measure of passion and skill. Mr. Willis represented The Tennessean on First Amendment issues for decades. He handled 40 cases for the newspaper, only one of which went to trial. He represented Metro Board of Education in the protracted battle over desegregation of local schools in 1978. He was also the Nashville School of Law's chief negotiator for the failed merger of the law school with Tennessee State University. He was a long-time chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Hospitals and oversaw the merger of Metro General and Meharry-Hubbard. Visitation will be Tuesday, August 3rd at 10 a.m. in the Parish Hall at Christ Church Cathedral, 900 Broadway, in Nashville. A Memorial Service will follow at 11 a.m. with the Very Reverend Timothy Kimbrough officiating and Father Charles Strobel delivering the eulogy. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial contributions be made to the , the National MS Society or the Nashville Humane Association. A native of Sumner County, Mr. Willis graduated from Hendersonville High School where he was President of his Senior Class, Editor of both the school newspaper and Annual and voted the Most Popular Senior. He graduated from MTSU where he served in student government, on the newspaper staff and won several national speaking awards. He earned his law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1954 where he was editor of the student newspaper and on the Law Review. Mr. Willis was a veteran of the United States Army. He attended the JAG School at the University of Virginia and served as a 1st Lt., Captain, and Major in the JAG Corp and was stationed in Korea from 1957-1959 and at the Presidio in San Francisco. As a young lawyer he practiced with Judge Tomas Higgins and then joined Hooker, Hooker & Willis. Later, he and Al Knight founded the firm of Willis & Knight where he continued to practice with his son and managing partner Russell Willis until his death. He celebrated his 50th year in practice in 2004. During that time he served as President of the Nashville Bar Association, President of Tennessee Young Lawyers, Special Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, Chairman of the Appellate Court Nominating Commission, Chairman of the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, and as a Special Circuit Court and Special Criminal Court Judge. He was a Founding Member of the Harry Phillips American Inns of Court, a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, a Delegate to the American Bar Association House of Delegates, a Life Member of the Sixth Circuit Judicial Conference, a Fellow of the American, Tennessee and Nashville Bar Foundations and a life Member of the Sixth Circuit Judicial Conference. In 1993 he earned the Nashville Bar Association's highest honor when he was awarded the John. C. Tune Public Service Award. Active in Democratic politics he played a major role in numerous state and national campaigns in the 1960s and early 70s and was a close friend and advisor to Gov. Lamar Alexander. His involvement in civic affairs was extensive and he was a Founder of Nashville Memorial Hospital, and served as Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Health, Chairman of the Board of Trust of Leadership Nashville, Chairman of the State Teacher Certification Commission, Chairman of the Tennessee Wildlife Commission, Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Health, and Chairman and member of the Board of Trust of Leadership Nashville. He was a 32nd Degree Mason and a Shriner. Mr. Willis was the son of the late Laura Langford and William R. Willis, Sr. of Gallatin and the brother of the late Charles "Buddy" Willis. Survivors include his wife, Carole Fant Willis; his children, Alfred Russell Willis (Deborah) of Nashville, William Reese Willis III (Kasey) of Atlanta, Brent Lawson Willis (Catherine) of Brentwood, and Lowell F. "Trey" Martin (fiancé Emily Walker) and Jessica (Mark) Darden of Nashville; his grandchildren, Claiborne Cline Willis, Merritt Woods Willis, Sydney Reid Willis, Elizabeth Drake Willis, Kendall Reese Willis, John Lawson Willis, William Morgan Willis, Caroline Carden Willis and Gage Lawson Willis and his niece, LaRae (Randy) Richards and nephew, Charles (Sherry) Willis.

Published in The Tennessean on Aug. 1, 2010