It is with great regret and sorrow that we must notify you of the death of our
Classmate, Ben Willis, on April 9, 2017, in Atlanta, GA after
a valiant battle with pancreatic cancer.
Ben has no immediate survivors.
A Celebration of Life Memorial Service will be held Saturday, April 22 at 2 pm at North Springs United
Methodist Church, 7770 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs, GA.
A reception will follow after the service in the Fellowship Hall.
In lieu of flowers, Ben requested before his death that donations in his memory be made to the Ben
Willis Fund, North Springs United Methodist Church, 7770 Roswell Road, Sandy
Springs, GA 30350.
Ben. Be thou at peace.
Class Memorial Pages\A-2 Ben Willis.pdf
I attended the memorial service today in Sandy Springs GA for our classmate Ben
Willis, who died last week of pancreatic cancer. Ben was a life long bachelor
with four tours on Vietnam and many decorations for heroism. I learned that the
last 30 years of his life were essentially devoted to good works with his church
and community. The people at his church obviously loved him. It showed for sure.
Other classmates there were Joe Stringham, Frank Egan, and Don Sawtelle.
Benjamin Louis "Ben" June 12, 1938 to April 9, 2017 Born in Bay Minette,
Alabama, Ben attended the local high school, playing football as a cornerback
and lineman. He attended West Point Military Academy, graduating in 1961. While
there, he was awarded a Brigade boxing championship and played football for 3
years. "Col Ben" had a distinguished career in the army including 4 tours of
duty in Vietnam as an Airborne Ranger in the 101st Infantry. He served under
General Colin Powell among other high ranking military leaders. Achieving the
rank of Lieutenant Colonel, he was awarded numerous medals and commendations,
including Bronze and Silver Stars. After military retirement, he worked with
private industry in environmental cleanup and as a private investigator. Ben
experienced a major change in his life after God led him to North Springs
Methodist Church. He became a faithful servant leader there, touching many lives
for Christ. He was the self-appointed kitchen and fellowship director, known for
his "almost famous" pork BBQ with all the fix'ns. Ben's interests included:
Crimson Tide Football, organizing church Red Cross Blood Drives (becoming state
leader in most pints from churches), fishing, reading, national politics, sports
cars, planning events, poker, an occasional fine cigar, cooking, and friendship
in numerous circles. Ben was preceded in death by his parents, Ester May and
Newnan F Willis Sr, a brother Newnan F Willis Jr. and sisters Helen Willis
Richardson, Jean Willis Calvert and Ann Willis. He leaves behind his extended
family of cousins, nieces and nephews, the family of Kathleen Askins, friends
from his growing up years in Bay Minette, and a huge faith and military family.
He will be remembered for his curmudgeonly, if not straightforward ways, his
sense of humor, concern for others, and his faith for which he tirelessly
toiled. A memorial service and celebration of Ben's life will be held at 2:00 pm
on Saturday, April 22, 2017 at North Springs Methodist Church, 7770 Roswell Rd,
Sandy Springs, GA 30350, 770.396.0844. A reception will follow the service in
the church Fellowship Hall. Ben requested memorial donations be made to the
North Springs United Methodist Church. There will also be a memorial Red Cross
Blood Drive to be held this summer. The church will post details.
Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Apr. 16, 2017
Ben Willis, 78: Warrior for country became
servant for church, others
Benjamin “Ben” Louis Willis (Ret.)
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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
When asked what
they’d spoken about, Willis gave a sly smile and said: “Wouldn’t you like to
know,” she said.
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.
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
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.
member and friend Tula Burch said she has never “met a man who was more giving
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
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.
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.
include a large extended family of cousins, nieces and nephews.
requested that memorial donations be made to North Springs United Methodist
“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
– Gen. Colin L.
Journal-Constitution 4:58 p.m Thursday, April 20, 2017
Taps Memorial Article:
Benjamin L. Willis
Cullum No. 23768-1961 | April
9, 2017 | Died in
Sandy Springs, GA
Cremated. Ashes interred Bay Minette Cemetery, AL
Benjamin Louis “Ben” Willis was born
in Bay Minette, AL on June 12, 1938 to Newnan F. and Esther May Willis. He was
the youngest of five children, all of whom he survived. After the death of his
father, Esther May raised her children on a seamstress’ salary and ensured
that they had the educational opportunity she herself had not. Specifically
for Ben, she saw to it that he attended Marion Military Institute, where he
prepared for his ultimate goal, attending West Point. Ben joined the Long Gray
Line on July 2, 1957 as a member of the Class of 1961.
Ben demonstrated adequacy in academic pursuits and was able to
achieve the required standards. More significantly, he proved to be a superb
athlete as a boxer and running and defensive back on the 150lb Football Team.
As a plebe, he distinguished himself by winning the 156lb intramural boxing
championship and, as those who stepped into the ring can attest, he could hurt
you with either hand. Academic demands on his time would limit his
participation to only one of these sports, and he settled on football. His
contribution to the team and leadership on the field were key factors in the
150lb team’s achievement of two championships and four winning seasons. Superb
athlete that he was, Ben could always find time to enjoy himself as he did the
night before a game with the University of Pennsylvania. The game the next day
was a blowout for Army, 35-0 at the half. Ben was to carry the load in the
second half, both offensively and defensively. Players went both ways in those
days. On the last play of the game, an exhausted Ben Willis was sprung for an
80-yard touchdown scamper: final score, Army 63, Penn 0.
Following graduation, Ben volunteered for Ranger and airborne
training, where his soft spoken, often laid back demeanor gave way to the true
warrior we would become accustomed to seeing and hearing, both in and out of
combat. He was a true combat hero, always leading from the front with his
hands-on style. His calmness and resolve under fire were an inspiration to
all; he was fearless. More impressively, Ben always looked after the troops:
the cold, tired, scared private; the severely wounded lieutenant; the widow
and her children; the defenseless elderly couple. All were recipients of his
compassion and true concern.
In 1963, Ben volunteered for the first of four combat
assignments in Vietnam. His almost legendary service has been chronicled in
two published accounts relating to his extraordinary service in combat. His
insight and influence into the tactical situation were always in evidence. On
one occasion, he sternly warned a group of USMC and U.S. Army officers and
NCOs preparing for heavy combat, saying, “You guys aren’t going up against a
bunch of rookies.” His words proved all too prophetic.
In 1973, Major Ben Willis served as battalion executive officer
under then Lieutenant Colonel Colin Powell in the Republic of Korea. They
would develop a close, professional relationship that would endure over the
years. General Powell would state, “He (Ben Willis) was a tough, but
compassionate leader who I counted on during a difficult period when we were
transitioning from a conscript to an all-volunteer Army.” Later, Ben would use
his extensive combat experience to tailor innovative training initiatives for
his mechanized troops at Fort Hood, TX. His work would receive Army wide
recognition in the preparation of our forces for their combat missions.
In 1981, Ben left the military to pursue a new endeavor in the
private sector. Ben organized and directed a successful private investigation
and security company, integrating his military skills and expertise in the
martial arts into a successful business venture. His company would be involved
in the security of numerous VIPs, local and international, and in the conduct
of sensitive investigations in the Atlanta area. He also worked extensively in
the environmental protection field.
More importantly, during this period of his life, Ben turned to
and developed a very close and lasting relationship with North Springs United
Methodist Church. Concurrent with his business ventures, he brought the sum of
his military experiences and resources to support the Church over the next two
decades. He organized and personally resourced Church social functions, blood
drives, and, what would become a Church tradition, a monthly barbecue. He is
remembered by Church members for his low-keyed generosity and for always being
alert to help the less fortunate.
Ben touched, influenced and aided many during his lifetime.
While his immediate family has preceded him in death, Ben adopted and/or was
adopted by Kathleen Askins (the daughter of Frank Sisk ’61). Ben was a devoted
uncle to Kathleen and husband, Hank (USMA ’92), and godfather to their
children. Parishioners, the community, the Askins, and those who served with
him in the Armed Forces join in saying, “Well Done, Ben; Be Thou at Peace.”
— Joe Stringham