GREENVILLE – Even after his passing, Greenville native and former Daily Advocate Reporter Jack Willey is still making his mark on the world…and the community that gave him his writing career start nearly 50 years ago.
A 1966 Greenville Senior High School (GHS) graduate, Willey, 66, passed away in March of 2014 after battling several illnesses. His longtime partner in life and work, Sherri Palmer of Columbus and his sister, Terri Ashby want to honor his passing by helping a GHS student with aspirations in the Communications field.
Thursday evening, The Daily Advocate along with Palmer, will be awarding a GHS senior, the Jack Willey Scholarship – $1,000 towards the student’s education.
“Jack’s writing career started because a Greenville teacher saw his talent in this area. For a young man who’s life could have gone in other directions, this ability brought him much joy and success,” explained Palmer.
Palmer said she wanted to share that same type of encouragement with a student thinking about writing as a career.
“While our entire world of ‘print journalism’ is changing drastically, writing skills are still an important credential in all professions. The sound bite-type of technical correspondence we are seeing today with Twitter, Facebook, etc., I believe it is even more important that we encourage students to develop in this area,” said Palmer. “It is my hope that the scholarship can offer a student a chance to capture the world with words.”
Willey, born on July 14, 1947, considered himself an Air Force brat (his father served), an American patriot who loved the Fourth of July and was known to shed a tear or two when Old Glory passed by, said Palmer.
He loved animals and promoted Columbus Zoo’s Jack Hanna and his many projects.
“I witnessed Taj, the Zoo’s white tiger come to the gate to lick his hand,” said Palmer. “Jack at one time had a pet skunk and all types of outdoor creatures seemed to find him. A mole, ducks and several bird nests were regulars at his condo.”
He was athletic; a competitive swimmer and diver in his youth inspired by his grandfather Bingham, he later moved on to Pro Am golf, professional car racing, sailing regattas, downhill skiing, fishing and cycling.
“He loved to golf and won lots of tournaments. He was a great sailor. But once he got involved with racing…nothing compared. He wrote endlessly about racing and traveled the states to race himself, raising sponsorship money to drive. After his racing days ended, I would still find him sitting in his race suit watching a race on TV,” Palmer recalled.
Willey was adventurous by nature and wrote about many unique experiences and people throughout his career earning him awards. He traveled with the rock band KISS to Japan for an article in Playboy Magazine, was a professional model in New York and was teased by fellow journalists who discovered his “underwear ads” for Elderbeerman, raced Indy cars where he met late actor Paul Newman, served as the campaign manager for George Smith’s campaign for Ohio attorney general against Bill Brown, was an assistant mall manager for Eastland Mall (later Westland) in Columbus.
He met and befriended many celebrities…actors Sean Connery, Nick Nolte and the late Bob Hope; singer Blondie, golfer Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Schwarzenegger and then wife Maria Shriver, the late Republican Governor Jim Rhodes and the late owner of Wendy’s, Dave Thomas would drop by for a Christmas party and considered the late Columbus Mayor Buck Rhinehart his pal.
Willey was one of the first newsmen on the scene in Xenia after the historic tornado in 1974. He never forgot the experience.
He attended Wright State University and the University of Maryland before landing his first writing job in 1967 with The Daily Advocate. He later wrote for the Dayton Daily News and The Columbus Dispatch beginning in 1971, leaving in 1977 and returning in 1981 as a columnist.
Willey was well-known for his “Item One” column in The Dispatch that gave readers an inside view of central Ohio’s most influential people and intriguing stories during the 1980s and ’90s. It was his ability to get close to prime sources that made his column an interesting read.
“I so admired his talent; a very different style, that made his column so popular. Concise and witty phrases that captured the person or issue and drew the reader in, almost as a silent partner to whatever he was writing about,” said Palmer.
According to The Dispatch, a typical column featured four or five items of sometimes gossipy news from the area — two movers and shakers irritated with each other, a restaurant opening, a note about some national celebrity seen around.
“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.”
Palmer said that Willey was never without a pen.
“Even when he was very sick, he slept with a pen. Consequently, every piece of clothing and bedding was always marked with ink stains. He was always writing,” she said.
He left journalism in 1995, and he and Palmer had a consulting business for a few years doing script writing for special events before retiring.
“With Jack there was never a dull moment, always some fun, a bit of head shaking and some drama,” said Palmer. “He knew or had met everyone from presidents to rock stars. Yet, he was the common man, loved to cook, garden and befriend nature’s wildlife.”
Willey is survived by his sister Terri Ashby, former publisher of The Daily Advocate. She resides in Middletown, Ohio.