Industry icon Ben Willis, Jr. dies


July 2017—

Former HFA member Ben Willis, Jr. died July 9 at the age of 97. Willis worked in his family business, Willis Furniture Company, Norfolk, Va., as a third-generation retailer until assuming the leadership role in 1965 after his father’s death. Willis retired in 1998, but remained involved in the business until his death.

Willis was a strong leader in the furniture industry, having served as Chairman of the Southern Home Furnishings Association and on the board of the National Home Furnishings Association. His family established the Willis Award of Merit in 1954, which was presented annually to a furniture retailer in the Southern Home Furnishings Assn., recognizing outstanding community activities, business conduct, service to God and service to the furniture industry. The award was discontinued in 2013 after Southern and National Home Furnishings associations merged with other trade associations to form Home Furnishings Association. The Willis group, however, continues to help fund the Ben Willis Scholarships at High Point University

“The furniture industry has lost a great man, leader and example and we have lost a wonderful and loyal friend,” said HFA member Rex Maynard, owner of Maynard’s Home Furnishings, Belton, S.C. Maynard is a fellow SHFA member and past Willis Award winner.

Benjamin Johnson Willis, Jr. was born on June 3, 1920 to Benjamin Johnson Willis Sr. and Alice Robertson Willis. Described as a private, humble and gentle person, he believed in duty, honor and responsibility which guided his life.

Willis was an Eagle Scout and supported scouting as an adult. He graduated from Maury High School in 193 8 and from Hampden Sydney College in 1942 and studied at the University of Virginia until being called into service by the U.S. Navy. He was a salvage diver on the USS Moreno during World War II. He was later called back into service and took command of LST 1154, the USS Tallahatchie County, during the Korean War. He remained in the Naval Reserves until his retirement as a Commander.

Willis was a member of Ghent United Methodist Church. He also served on many boards, including the Board of Trustees of Virginia Wesleyan College.

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Blair Robertson Willis, his daughter Martha Blair FitzGerald and husband Chip, son Jeff R. Willis, MD and wife Lauren Willis, MD and son Ben Willis III and wife Jenny and grandchildren PJ and Blair FitzGerald, Claire, Anna, Audrey, and Megan Willis and Xander and Caroline Willis.

A memorial service is being held today. Memorials may be sent to Virginia Wesleyan College or to the charity of your choice.

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