Willis had been employed by News Publishing Co. for 27 years.
He was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and is survived by his mother Joyce Willis Lee, his stepfather John Lee, of San Antonio, Texas; a sister, Joyce Willis Richey in Seguin, Texas; his ex-wife Carol Willis and two daughters, Molly Willis Lopez and Jennifer Willis McNeil, all of Rome.
Willis was born in Osaka, Japan, the son of an Army physician. He was the editor of the student newspaper at VMI. His first job was with the Worcester County Times in Ocean City, Md., where he served as sports editor. He became director of communications at Anderson College in Anderson, S.C., and later came to Rome in the summer of 1985.
Willis started his own public relations firm in Rome, and then became managing editor of the Coosa Valley View, a business publication that was ultimately acquired by News Publishing Co.
He became business editor of the Rome News-Tribune and editor of the Roman Record before being named publisher of the Calhoun Times in May of 2003. He continued to hold that post after being named editorial page director of the Rome News-Tribune.
“John Willis was unquestionably among the best men and newspaper men I have ever known and worked with,” said Rome News-Tribune Publisher Otis Raybon. “He loved his church, family, friends, co-workers and the newspapers and communities they served. His life was one of service.
“John understood the important role that newspapers play in the life of a community and he worked to make sure his were the best they could be,” Raybon continued.
“He was annually recognized by the Georgia Press Association and the Associated Press for his writing skills in many categories. John was a mentor for many young and upcoming journalists and will be missed by many,” Raybon said.
Daughter Molly Willis Lopez said she would always remember her father’s selflessness and thoughtfulness.
“He cared for everybody and always put others first,” Lopez said. “Anything I ever needed from a dad he always provided. He was always there with the little things and took really good care of us in a lot of ways. … but he did that for so many people.”
Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce President Al Hodge recalled spending a lot of time with Willis when Hodge first moved to Rome, getting some history of the community and Willis’ perspective of the business community.
“Over the years, even while he was in Calhoun, we continued communications, and of course, I was always eager to read his opinions,” Hodge said.
Willis was a member of the Board of Directors of the Calhoun-Gordon Council for a Literate Community. Executive Director Wayne Minshew, a retired journalist, said Willis’ favorite event was the adult spelling bee.
“He loved to write about that and play with the words. He did it so well. The only reason I hated to discontinue it, although it had run its course, was because he liked it so much,” Minshew said. “He really believed in what we were doing and we got great coverage for everything we tried to do. He was one of the most decent people I’ve ever met.”
Jimmy Phillips, president of the Gordon County Chamber of Commerce, said that Willis would be greatly missed by the business community in Calhoun and Gordon County.
“He was a great guy; he was the Calhoun Times,” Phillips said. “We already missed him because he was back and forth between Calhoun and Rome. It’s with great sadness and heartache to hear this news.”
Away from work, Willis was a longtime volunteer leader of the youth program at First United Methodist Church of Rome. Devon Goddard Smyth, a former youth minister at FUMC, said Willis served with five different youth ministers.
“He was one of the constants for our kids,” Smyth said. “He was a quiet witness to the faith. When he had something to say the room got still to hear what Papa John had to say.”
While in Calhoun, Willis was a Sunday school teacher at Calhoun First United Methodist, a class that included Bert Lance.
“He was a great person,” Lance said. “We go back a long way. He always was on the scene and had great knowledge of politics in Georgia. He’ll be missed in that regard.”
The family will receive friends Friday from 6 to 8:30 p.m. in the Wilder Center of First United Methodist Church of Rome, 202 E. Third Ave. Funeral services will be Saturday at 2 p.m. from the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church of Rome.