DARKE COUNTY - Jack Willey who made his mark in Greenville and beyond in the field of journalism, among other things, will be memorialized at a celebration of Life to be held from 1 to 3 p.m. next Sunday at The Boathouse at Conflucence Park in Columbus.
Those planning to attend are asked to contact his life partner, Sherri Palmer, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 66-year-old Willey died March 19 in Columbus after battling a number of illnesses.
Willey, who wrote sports and other articles in the Greenville Daily Advocate, his hometown newspaper, in the late 1960s, went to The Dispatch in Columbus in 1971 after a stint with the Dayton Daily News.
According to information in The Dispatch, Willey left there in 1977 for the business world and served for a time as the manager of Westland Mall. But it was his return to The Dispatch in 1981 and the beginning of “Item One” that helped make him a local celebrity.
“It was one of the most widely read features in the paper,” said state Rep. Michael F. Curtin, a Democrat from Marble Cliff and former editor and associate publisher of The Dispatch. “He was colorful, and he loved that role.”
Many people in Darke County still remember Willey, not only for his journalistic endeavors or his athletic prowess, but also for the time he talked a young Greenville woman off the water tower in the park, rescuing her, at the south end of town in the late 1960s.
Paul Wood Jr., former managing editor (ME) of The Daily Advocate and now living in Noblesville, Ind., has a lot of memories of Willey.
“I came to the Advocate as ME in 1969,” Wood said. “The late J. Knox Dye was publisher. Jack was already writing sports, and Mr. Dye and I determined he could handle being sports editor. I wish I could remember the man’s last name, first name was John, and he was head football coach at Versailles, prior to Al Hetrick. Jack got wind that John was moving to Centerville, after building an extra special record at VHS. We copyrighted and broke the story, and boy was there a hullabaloo. Jack was a go-getter, and an outstanding writer. He did well in Dayton, but after becoming a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch, out of the sports realm, he really built a following. Candi and I suffered a rough time for a guy who was incredibly cocky otherwise. He was an athlete, a lover of his mom, brother and sister, and underneath the bravado, a genuinely nice person. We kinda lost touch in later years.”
Rick Birt of Greenville said, “I really can’t remember when I first met Jack Willey, but I can honestly say that once you met him, you sure don’t forget him. I worked at the Greenville City Swimming Pool throughout my high school summers. At that time, Greenville had a summer swim team, and the swimming pool was the epicenter of our summer activities. Greenville had an excellent swimming and diving team, with many talented members and Jack was one of the best.”
Birt recalls at a later point in time that he and Willey met again.
“We both worked for the Greenville Daily Advocate,” Birt said. “This was in the late 1960s. Jack was a sports dude and I was in advertising. We both liked auto racing and spent many Sundays at Eldora Speedway. Jack, was a person who, to put it mildly, was what one might say was rather self-confident; sometimes to a fault. We made a couple of summer trips to Daytona Beach, Fla. along with several other friends; and Jack’s biggest friend was the diving board, where he liked to display his diving expertise to any and all the girls sitting around the pool. Like I said, Jack was a particularly confident person. Part of his diving regime was to bounce on the board, adjust the fulcrum, bounce some more; all done to get every set of eyes on him. Unfortunately, one of his bounces went very wrong, and on the way into the water, he clipped his shin on the edge of the board, and tore off a huge amount of skin. In typical Jack style, he got out of the pool, threw his towel around his shoulder, and without a sound, exited the pool area. As he got to our motel room door, we heard a very loud scream, opened the door and there was Jack, blood pouring from his leg, but by gosh, he wasn’t going to let the girls at the pool feel his pain. We all found this mildly amusing.”
A few years later, Birt was transferred to Michigan, and he lost track of Willey.
“I heard a lot about him and his career at the Columbus Dispatch, and understand he was very successful,” Birt concluded. “That doesn’t surprise me, because like I said, he was very self-confident.”
Palmer, Willey’s life partner of 18 years, had this to say, about him: “Jack never forgot his Greenville roots and always reminisced about his swimming and diving days and was especially grateful for the recognition of his writing skills by his high school teachers. He was my best friend. His home overlooked the water and his favorite pastime was allowing the ducks to take food right from his hand. Jack remained a true patriot-making sure the American flag was hung properly every holiday and was still thoroughly engaged in world and local news. And, of course, a dedicated fan of the OSU Buckeyes! His doorbell rang out the OSU fight song.”
Bill Booker, a local historian in the area, said he was working at the radio station, WDRK, when Willey was sports editor.
“He was in love with himself no questions about that,” Booker said. “He was always good looking and knew it. He was a natural athlete. He liked swimming, diving and golf. He had athleticism and loved his Greenville. He was always on time.”
“I remember his desk full of pictures of himself,” remarked June Baker, who was a teletypesetter when she began working at the local newspaper in 1967.
She also remembers the time when he was smoking a cigar and dumped the ashes into a can holding plastic used for the scanagraver nearby and it caught fire. Baker, too, recalls when he climbed the water tower via a cherry picker and persuaded her to come down in 1967.
“Jack was all right,” said John “Jack” Campbell, former foreman of production at the Greenville Daily Advocate. “He was just a kid when he worked there. He was good-natured to everything.”
Roy Harrison, who was formerly with the Greenville Police Department, remembers Willey, too.
“Back then, he did a very good job reporting police news for us,” Harrison said. “By the time we got him broke in, he went to Columbus. We called him steeplejack because of the time he climbed up the steeple of the church on Fifth Street and put a flag rush sign up there.”
Harrison said he was on the sheriff’s patrol when the water tower incident at the south side park occurred.
“I was there but not officially. It was before I got on the police department,” Harrison said. “Jack got to go on runs with several things with us back then. I think he did a ride-along back then. He was a young kid, ambitious and wanted information to get stories out there.”
“He was a real go-getter,” said Aleene Tyo Cromwell, a former co-worker of Willey’s at the Greenville newspaper. “He had a real passion for sports and went head-on into whatever it was. He was a cute kid with freckles and strawberry hair.”
Her funniest memory of Willey?
“There was a fire at Corning Glass Works,” Cromwell recalled. “Jack went to it but they wouldn’t let him in, so he hitched a ride on the back of a firetruck. He got thrown out, of course.”
Willey, it was noted, left journalism in 1995, and he and Palmer worked together in public relations and event planning for years afterward.