Eight plaques hang at North Springs United Methodist Church as a testament to the congregation’s record Red Cross blood donations.
Ben Willis, the drives’ organizer, knew how to sweeten the appeal for donors. Instead of giving out the standard juice and cookies, Willis had a barbecue sandwich waiting for anyone willing to roll up their sleeves and give blood.
He bought the barbecue with his own money, said the Rev. Sara Webb Phillips, pastor of the Sandy Springs church.
“He felt a passion for that because he had been injured in Vietnam at least a couple of times,” she said.
Lt. Col. Benjamin “Ben” Louis Willis (Ret.) of Sandy Springs, a decorated career military man who served as second-in-command to Gen. Colin Powell in Korea, died April 9. He was 78.
Born June 12, 1938, in the small town of Bay Minette, Ala., Willis had many passions, including his church, sports cars, the occasional fine cigar and Alabama football.
He played cornerback and lineman in high school. He also spent three years playing football at West Point, the U.S. military academy, where he also won a brigade boxing championship and graduated in 1961.
Long after he’d hung up his cleats, Willis would gather with friends in front of a big-screen television to cheer on his beloved Crimson Tide.
In the Army, Willis was known as “Col. Ben.” His service included four tours of duty in Vietnam and a stint as a top aide to Gen. Powell. He received numerous commendations and medals, including the Bronze and Silver Stars, and retired as a lieutenant colonel.
In a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gen. Powell said Willis was “a great soldier who was my second in command when I commanded an Infantry battalion in Korea in 1973.”
The general said, “He was a tough, but compassionate leader who I counted on during a difficult period when we were transitioning from the conscript to an all-volunteer Army. God rest his soul.”
Powell and Willis had not been in touch for years. But hearing of Willis’ failing health, the general recently called. Willis said they “had a good conversation,” his pastor said.
When asked what they’d spoken about, Willis gave a sly smile and said: “Wouldn’t you like to know,” she said.
Willis worked with private industry in environmental cleanup and as a private investigator after retiring from the military.
His decision to join North Springs 23 years ago was life-changing, Phillips said.
Once a member of the church, “his life just kind of turned around and he started living his life as one of service and one of God,” Phillips said.
One of the ways he expressed his faith “was his amazing care for people who would come to the church and were hungry,” she said.
He also believed strongly that the church should have at least one big event a month, whether it was a dinner, a party or reception. And in his take-charge style, he took responsibility for organizing these events.
For years, he put on a church fish fry. In preparation for the dinners, he would gather rods, reels and some of the men from the church for a fishing trip to Florida, his pastor said.
In more recent years, he came up with the idea of a Hawaiian luau complete with a whole roasted pig and his “almost famous” barbecue, she said.
Longtime church member and friend Tula Burch said she has never “met a man who was more giving to people.”
She said she often spotted him slipping money to people in need.
“He gave most everything he made away,” Burch said. “What a person, right?”
Willis had many friends and passions. Besides Crimson Tide football, he loved fishing, reading, national politics, sporting events, poker, cooking and a good cigar now and then.
The Red Cross blood drives he organized at the church set multiple records for the most pints donated by a nonprofit organization, Phillips said. The church is planning a blood drive in his memory this summer, she said.
Willis was preceded in death by his immediate family: his parents, Ester May and Newnan F. Willis Sr., brother Newnan F. Willis and sisters Helen Willis Richardson, Jean Willis Calvert and Ann Willis.
His survivors include a large extended family of cousins, nieces and nephews.
Willis requested that memorial donations be made to North Springs United Methodist Church.
“He was a tough, but compassionate leader who I counted on during a difficult period when we were transitioning from the conscript to an all-volunteer Army. God rest his soul.”
– Gen. Colin L. Powell