NANCES CREEK — Gerald Willis’ political ambitions took him far from the Calhoun County community he was born into, but in some ways he never really left home. Willis, a state lawmaker, business owner, and one-time presidential candidate, died Friday. He was 75.
One of five children in his family, Willis grew up the son of a pastor for a Congregational Holiness church and a homemaker. They lived in Nances Creek, a community south of Piedmont encircled by the Appalachian foothills. Family members said Friday that even when work took Willis to Montgomery, he never missed a night in Nances Creek, opting for years to fly his private plane to and from the state capitol.
“His heart was here in Nances Creek,” his daughter Kim Pruitt said.
A graduate of White Plains High School, Willis never earned a college degree, but those closest to him said he will be remembered for his intellect and achievements. At the time of his death, Willis owned cattle, more than 500acres of timberland and a custom-built home modeled after the Hermitage, the name of the Tennessee estate of Andrew Jackson.
Willis was an ardent admirer of the nation’s seventh president.
Willis was also a family man, a lifelong church-goer, longtime saw mill owner, a pilot, and a county commissioner. In 1983, Willis famously announced his campaign for president of the United States, an attempt to fulfill a lifelong ambition, said his sister, Martha Hancock.
“If the public ever really got a hold of Gerald, he would have definitely made president,” she said, adding that he lacked the recognition needed to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination, but always had the drive to make it to the top. “He told his mother from the time he was ten years old that he was going to be famous. She always encouraged him.”
Piedmont Mayor Bill Baker said nobody expected someone from Piedmont to secure nomination, but that he supported Willis during his attempt. To Willis, the campaign was just an extension of his public service.
“It was his heart and soul,” Baker said of Willis’ work as an elected leader. “He took his job serious, and tried to do what was right.”
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, knew Willis for decades. Elected to the Calhoun County Commission at 28, Rogers is recognized for being the youngest person to hold that office. But before he achieved that distinction there was Willis, who secured a spot on the commission at age 30.
The two also served together in the state Legislature. Later on, in 2002, Rogers and Willis would run for the same congressional seat. Willis, who ran as a Democrat, lost in the primary and threw his support behind Rogers, who said he won the race by 3,500 votes.
“It probably elected me,” Rogers said of the endorsement. “It made a big difference for me.”
After his election, Rogers said, he recommended Willis for a presidential appointment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In that post Willis traveled the nation working as an advocate for renewable energy, a topic his family said he became interested in in the 1970s.
Rogers said he was able to get that job for him by explaining how smart Willis was, and what he had done for him.
“He was just a real smart guy when it came to public policy,” Rogers said. “He’s just an impressive fellow.”
The brick, two-story home Willis and his wife, Frances, had built 35 years ago cost just more than $200,000. His desire for it to look like the Hermitage was so keen that the couple paid JSU students to visit the original structure in Tennessee, memorize its rooms, and draw them, for it was against state law to take pictures inside.
Homes in the neighborhood of the Willis estate are more modest, with stick-built front porches. Doug Smith lives in such a home, and said people in the small hillside community have lived there so long some of the households have had the same land-line phone numbers for generations.
Smith said he spoke to the former state legislator regularly and will remember him not for his professional or political accomplishments, but for the kind of neighbor he was.
“He was as honest as he could be,” Smithsaid. “I've never known of him lying, and I never caught him in a lie.”
A blade on a miniature windmill outside the home is painted with the words “Alabama Hermitage,” a label applied to his home, which was once open to tourists. On the 4th of July 1983, for example, an estimated 4,000 people visited for the holiday occasion and to hear a campaign pitch. Willis identified with and admired Jackson, who rose from a humble background to lead the nation, and he often spoke in praise of the “common man.”
Sitting on a formal sofa inside the family entrance to the family home, which includes a winding staircase and a mural that mimics the one found in the Hermitage, Willis’ wife, his sister, and his daughter Friday explained what motivated him.
The family members said Willis, on more than one occasion, donated lumber to build churches, that he left anonymous financial donations in the mailboxes of people in need, and bought groceries for families without ever letting anyone know he was the donor.
Through his political work, they said, he believed he could help more people.
“He was just a thoughtful person,” said his wife. “If he knew of anybody who was in need, he would just help them out.”
Visitation will be held Sunday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Dansby Heritage Chapel in Piedmont. The funeral will be Monday at Dansby 2 p.m., and a graveside service will follow.