Willis retires as spiritual fixture in Lee County
Those who know Bill Willis wish they could talk him out of leaving.
Willis, 73, has been a spiritual fixture in the area for nearly 40 years as a pastor and a chaplain.
He and his wife Alida are retiring, heading to Arizona to be with one of their two daughters, her husband and their two children.
This will require one large classified ad.
This Sunday is his last at Argyle Presbyterian Church, where he has been pastor since 2005, his third pastorate since 1980.
Willis had his retirement party two weeks ago at The Madison health center, where he had been the chaplain there as well as the other five entities of the Inhance Corporation since 2005.
He will no longer be available for funerals. He was the local funeral homes’ “go-to” pastor for many people who had no church affiliation.
Willis will also no longer be volunteering for the Lee County Hospice, where he has served since 2001; nor will he be a volunteer chaplain for Fort Madison Community Hospital.
Also ending is his ministerial support for the Lee County Jail, where he has served since 1998 and had weekly services at the facility for several years.
All this doesn’t include his previous positions as board member for the Tri-State Women’s Pregnancy Center (1985-2003) and chaplain for the Clinical Care Unit at Iowa State Penitentiary (2003-2007).
Wanted: 10 people to fill the places of one.
sense of gratitude
“One of the key things about my job,” Willis said – though “jobs” is more accurate – “is I’ve been able to share God’s love with people during various seasons of the their life.
“I think I really hurt when they hurt, and I’m really happy when they’re happy.”
Willis considers himself blessed to be able to do the work he did.
“I look back over the years of my ministry, and I have a deep sense of gratitude that God allowed me to have that kind of job.”
Willis’ role for Inhance was not just as chaplain for the health center residents, although he did have services several times a week.
Bill Napier of Inhance Corporation said, “We wanted to have someone available for services and to tend to the spiritual needs, not only to the residents, but the employees as well.”
“He’s been an inspiration to our residents and staff,” said Janelle Case, Marketing Director at The Madison. “He’s been more than a pastor and colleague, he’s been a friend.”
Service worker Kathy Case of The Madison said, “He would hold a memorial service for residents who died who had no family left.”
Willis would put together picture boards from the deceased resident’s room and prepare the service from that little information.
Outside of a funeral director, a pastor – especially one who works with hospice patients – confronts death on a regular basis.
The worst cases were the surprises at The Madison, when there wasn’t time to tip him off.
“It’s very hard to visit a resident for a long period of time,” Willis said, “and to walk in one morning and see his room stripped and sanitized.”
More often, however, “I counted it a real privilege to be able to work with the families of a resident,” he said. “There’s really something special about holding hands with the family around the bed while a person is dying.
He called it a “holy moment” to watch someone as they take their final breath.
But he’ll do funerals for anyone who needs one, not just the residents or the parishioners of the churches he led. He said he did more than 100 in 2016 alone.
“I love doing funerals,” he said.
“It’s the time of the deepest grief that a family will experience,” and he enjoyed being able to help out even if in a small way.
Willis was born in Greenville, Mich., the son of a pastor, Ralph Willis.
He served in the Air Force and was stationed in Japan during the Vietnam War.
With an eye on some career in the ministry, Willis graduated from Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bible College (now Taylor University) with a bachelor of science degree in Christian Education and Missions.
But, he decided, “I didn’t want to do fundraising,” Willis said.
During school, Willis worked for J.C. Penney in Fort Wayne selling TVs and stereos.
When he graduated, he was offered, and accepted, a job as sales and merchandise manager in 1973. He eventually transferred to Keokuk, where he worked one year.
Then came the calling which would change his life dramatically, as well as those of thousands of others.
“I felt God calling me to be a pastor of a rural church,” Willis said, and he went to lead Golden’s Point Christian Church in Hamilton, Ill.
It was a church of fewer than 100 members, but not much bigger than the rural Michigan church he grew up in.
Willis took a correspondence course with Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
“They really taught me how to be a pastor,” Willis said.
In 1982, he was ordained in the Evangelical Free Church Ministerial Association.
After nine years at Golden’s Point, Willis became the pastor of Grace Bible Church in Wever in 1990, where he stayed until 2002.
A brief break
Willis took a break from the ministry, and he and Alida went to work for the Inhance Corporation to manage the Kingsley Inn in downtown Fort Madison.
Kingsley Inn closed a few years after that, and Napier asked Willis if he would like to be the staff chaplain for Inhance.
At the same time, the Argyle Presbyterian Church found itself without a pastor. It didn’t matter to the congregation that Willis was not affiliated with the denomination; they asked him to be a part-time pastor and he’s been there ever since.
“I loved it,” Willis said of his tenure there.
“Argyle has such a wonderful spirit about the people,” he said. “They were a wonderful congregation to work it. They were very community oriented.”
It was also during this stretch he worked as a volunteer for Lee County Hospice, as a volunteer chaplain for Del Vande Krol for the CCU at ISP; he had the jail ministry and he worked the Tri-State Pregnancy Center out of Carthage, Ill.
While Willis has affected the lives of many, his wife Alida has been his anchor.
“She was the greatest supporter that a person could have,” Willis said. “If she didn’t do what she did behind the scenes, I never would have been able to accomplish what I did.”
“She’s my wife and my best friend.”