As a recipient of Winnsboro’s Man of the Year Award, many of Jim Willis’ deeds for the town obviously get noticed. But mostly, he slips quietly in and out of downtown businesses and the Winnsboro Center for the Arts bringing people and ideas together that make a positive difference for the community. Sharing his love for music, photography, and all the arts, continues to help keep one of Texas’ best small towns thriving for visitors and residents alike.
He is quick to give credit to others, but those who work with Willis know his talents and hard work are invaluable for the good of this community he chooses to serve on a daily basis.
Deep family roots enticed he and his wife Glynda to enjoy a weekend country place nearby since 1981 and they made it officially home when he retired in 2008.
"I first came to Winnsboro in 1940 a few months after I was born to visit my grandparents who lived north of town," Willis says. "I spent a lot of time with them growing up first near Winnsboro and then later near Quitman."
His grandparents ran a small dairy herd in both places and his grandfather ran a milk route where he hauled the heavy milk cans to the processors.
"Without knowing it at the time, I learned to appreciate the simple country life."
Willis grew up with his parents and sister in Dallas. His father ran a house painting business and was later an aircraft painter.
"My father was a quiet, principled and respected man. Though he was orphaned at an early age, he lived a life where doing a good job and being fair were important to him," Willis says.
His mother was a housewife and involved in church work and scouting programs for him and his sister.
The family devotion to doing a good job stuck with Willis.
"I was fortunate enough to spend most of my working life with the same company," he says, noting they were a family of about 450 people, many of whom he is still friends with now.
He held many positions over the 27 or so years that he worked for Thermalloy, Inc., one of the largest semiconductor accessory providers in the world. Some included materials and inventory management, international sales, and data and systems design and implementation.
"These were some of the most formative years of my life, and when we moved from manual to computer systems, I discovered that I had an unusual understanding of and respect for data."
During these years, Willis also honed his photography skills, combining that with his love of music when he attended the first Kerrville Folk Festival in 1972. He was one of three staff photographers for this Texas Hill Country event for more than a dozen years.
"I learned a lot about both interests during that time, meeting many folks in the music business and watching the festival struggle and grow into a major U.S. event."
Now in its 49th year, the Kerrville Music Festival is the longest continuously running music festival in the country.
Willis’ work and volunteer history landed him perfectly in place at the Winnsboro Center for the Arts (WCA) when he joined the board of directors in 2013.
"It was just in time to head up a renovation project of the center," Willis says. "I’ve always loved project management."
The renovation included space for live music and The Bowery Stage was born with Willis assigned the job of booking and hosting concerts.
"That proved to be a very meaningful turn of events, like a career change," Willis says.
He combined his photography skills with promotions and booking of musicians and the center produced their first concert in April of 2014.
Willis also enjoys creating posters and other promotional pieces for all the shows.
"I get a great deal of fulfillment in sitting down to create a poster or artwork or ad and watch an idea hatch and morph into a pleasing design that will hopefully translate into people deciding to come to the concert," he says.
Since 2014, The Bowery Stage has presented about 110 concerts with roughly 240 musicians of all kinds and Willis says he’s pleased by the array of talent that’s come to Winnsboro.
"I’ve always loved folk music and by the time a year had gone by a series of events let us bring Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) to our little 120-seat venue in Winnsboro," Willis says. "That was followed by a number of the musicians I listened to in the 60’s and 70’ like Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Melanie, and Michael Martin Murphey."
He notes others that have played The Bowery Stage in the past like Maria Muldaur, George Winston, John Sebastian, and Eric Andersen and says future concerts include those by Mairead Nesbitt of Celtic Woman, Nobody’s Girl (BettySoo, Grace Pettis, and Rebecca Loebe), Hannah Kirby, Eliza Gilkyson, Sofia Talvik, and Mary Gauthier to name a few.
While taking a humble bow for keeping the music flowing at the art center, Willis knows no man accomplishes anything alone.
"Producing concerts is the result of the work of a lot of dedicated and talented volunteers," he says, "and those folks are a subset of an equally dedicated and talented group of members of the WCA."
Willis’ road to this point in his life was a fairly steady one with a few challenges along the way but overall, he says, "life’s challenges have been few and well scattered." Today, he says he likes where he is.
"My wife likes to say that I’m ‘boring and conservative’ and it’s true that the line on the excitability chart doesn’t move around a lot. But, for the most part, the line on the happiness chart stays well onto the plus side.
"My plan now is to continue living life in the way my father taught me and doing the things I’m doing now. I enjoy the fact that most days begin with a WCA to-do list, many with deadlines. I hope to continue booking concerts until the day that we have one and I forget to go."