Ed Willis, a former Alaska legislator and Anchorage Assembly member who was an early advocate for special education and instrumental in bringing a high school to Chugiak in the 1960s, died Monday in Anchorage. He was 94.
Willis was a longtime Eagle River resident who spent the last decade living at the Veterans and Pioneers Home in Palmer, according to his family.
Former Chugiak-Eagle River Star Editor Lee Jordan said Willis was his best friend. On Thursday, Jordan remembered Willis as a warm, thoughtful man who was a passionate advocate for the community and always willing to listen with an open mind.
"I never heard him say a negative thing about anybody," Jordan said.
Willis was born in Barstow, California, on Nov. 29, 1923. He worked as a power plant operator and was very active in local politics, serving three terms on the Greater Anchorage Borough Assembly (twice as president) and representing Chugiak-Eagle River in the Alaska State Senate from 1975-78 and the State House from 1993-96.
Willis served as an independent in the Legislature and his politics often leaned to the left — an unusual thing for an Eagle River politician, said his son, Charlie Willis.
"Every now and then he swam against the tide because it was a pretty Republican area and he was not a Republican, but he loved everyone out there and he worked with everyone and listened to what others had to say," Willis said.
Former Republican legislator Bill Stoltze was Willis' campaign manager in the early 1990s. Stoltze said Willis was "a true gentleman" who had the ability to listen to all sides of a debate and keep conversations civil even with those he disagreed with.
"He could have strong philosophical differences and argue but still keep it incredibly civil," Stoltze said. "He was the kind of role model I wish I could have followed better myself."
Jordan said that when Willis was on the Anchorage Assembly, he was the Star's most reliable source.
"He would make it a point to tell me both sides of every argument I asked him about," Jordan said.
After serving as a boiler room mechanic in the Merchant Marines in World War II, Willis married his wife, Joyce, in 1949. They traveled to Alaska the following year via the Alaska Highway, according to Joyce's 2013 obituary. The couple had five children.
Willis' career in politics began when he lobbied for special education as president of the Eagle River Elementary PTA. The Willises' daughter, Linda, had Down syndrome, and Ed Willis worked tirelessly to bring special education classes to the Anchorage School District. Willis was also an early member of the group that would later become the Arc of Anchorage.
Jordan said Willis' advocacy for children with special needs was one of his lasting legacies.
"He wanted her to have an education and he really worked hard for it," Jordan said.
Willis served as chair of the Chugiak Advisory School Board and was a co-chair of Operation Chugiak High School, a group of local citizens that helped get the school built in 1963 and opened in 1964.
In 1970, Willis was awarded the Outstanding Public Service Award by the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce for his work in the community.
"He did so many things people don't even know about," Stoltze said.
Willis also worked hard to oppose efforts to incorporate Chugiak-Eagle River into the Anchorage Borough in the 1970s. Though ultimately unsuccessful, Stoltze said Willis embodied the area's independent spirit.
"He was just such a leading citizen, someone who was always fighting for community autonomy," Stoltze said.
After moving to Palmer, Willis remained active in politics, his son said. The former legislator would often write letters to Juneau hoping to get more funding for the facility.
"He never quit learning, never quit trying to reach out and learn more," Charlie Willis said.
The family is in the process of planning a celebration of life.
Jordan said Ed Willis will be remembered both as a major figure in Chugiak-Eagle River politics and as someone who was honest, friendly and kind.
"He was just an all-around great guy," Jordan said.
Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 907-257-4274.