WILLCOX Favorite Son and Daughter Award
Favorite Son 2016 - Jeff Willey
Photo: Ainslee S. Wittig/Arizona Range News
Before beginning his presentation, Reno told the audience, “If you like how the favorite son is honored here, be sure and submit your favorite nominee next August before this annual gathering.”
“Family, football and farming. Not necessarily in that order, but maybe, for our honoree tonight, who was raised in WIllcox, left, then, fortunately for us, returned,” Reno said.
He described Willey as “his Dad’s right hand man, a youthful hardworking boy, and through adulthood in business ventures. He raised his first son (Kendrick) the same way, to work hard early and become a right hand man in young adulthood.”
Willey had “a love of playing football, for Willcox,” passing that love onto Kendrick, who also played here,” Reno said. “He didn’t push his daughter (Nicole) to do so, however – she got the brains.”
Willey was raised on a farm, in turn raising his own kids on a farm in their early childhood, “before becoming city folks as his career demanded it,” said Reno, adding that he would talk about Willey’s career later in the presentation.
Reno talked about some of Willey’s “typical childhood adventures for a rural boy.”
Willey’s Mom had shared with the grandkids the story of a ride out in the country, just before she and grandpa moved to Arizona,” he said.
Willey was three-and-a-half and his brother was two, and had been picking pecans with their mother.
“She was driving down the dirt road, and had them sitting in the back seat (before the days that car seats were required), and Mom noticed something go out the back window,” said Reno, adding that she asked Willey what he threw out, to which he replied, “Nothing.”
“After all, he didn’t throw little brother out,” Reno told the audience. “That was little Greg’s doing. He apparently wanted a ground level view of his mom’s departing car, and wasn’t too much the worse for wear.”
Willey’s sister, Pam Noland, remembers campouts at Roosevelt Lake where he would bring his friends, like Doug Dunlap or Tony DeBruller or David Briggs and their bikes and, “being a little reckless, would try riding down some hills near the lake and inevitably tumbling over the handlebars before crashing into the dirt,” he said.
Reno went onto say that Willey has been known to tell a story or two on himself.
“Like the time hunting quail near Bonita, when, who else, but little brother comes running over a hill startling quail, and startling our favorite son, who, Dick Cheney style, shot the boy, not the birds,” he said.
Willey was able – “despite being just 13 at the time, to somehow drive Greg quickly to the hospital in time for a full recovery.”
“I’m trying to imagine the doctor bills for that family,” said Reno, adding that maybe it was guilt that pushed Willey “to become such a hard worker.”
“Oats, cotton and barley needed to be worked on at the farm,” and Willey accompanied Dad on horseback or his very own motorcycle from a very young age, he said.
As he grew to teenage years, Willey had “plenty of energy for sports, from Bonita School basketball and baseball to Willcox High basketball and the big one, football,” Reno said. “He loved the game, and still does, and it’s a good reason you’ll see his name out there, as well as his presence helping the quarterback club as well as the FFA, thanks to his Ag roots.”
Kendrick tells stories about how much he loved working with his Dad on the farm, or for the landscape business, “where he rode a four wheel riding tractor, easily converted to a four-wheel recreational vehicle, by the way, when he was four years old.”
Then they left Grandpa’s business to move here, and “by the way, our Favorite son did not want to raise his kids near the big city of Houston, so he moved here when they were toddlers to get that small town raising and schooling, like he had,” Reno said.
Or perhaps Willey “wanted to also keep a closer eye on his three-year old daughter after that time she was jumping on the trampoline and innocently watched a spring from the trampoline vault off the apparatus and into the windshield of Dad’s new truck,” said Reno, adding, “She not so innocently scampered past dad while he went out to see what the noise was about.”
Moving back to Willcox, Willey went to work for his Uncle Terry Preas in construction and welding, he told the audience.
“But he also had a big city idea that he tried out during Rex Allen Days in the 80s and found that it worked well enough for him to expand it into every weekend out on Ft. Grant Road. It became every night when he brought the business into Willcox on North Haskell, then finally full time day and night,” said Reno, adding that it probably wouldn’t have been profitable without part-time help from his kids, his sister, and his wife.
Speaking of hard work, the restaurant business “has the longest hours and a short learning curve,” said Reno, adding that Willey has figured out how to become a successful owner, entrepreneur, and investor.
“Not only investing his time and money into our community and its youth programs, but also helping his own son start a business on the side while still working for Dad, and helping his current wife start an exciting business of her own (Isabel’s) that actually competes with his business,” he said.
“His business has a great name, that our favorite son came up with himself. Sort of a nickname, not as good as his Dad’s, which is Slick,” said Reno, adding, “Have him tell you that story sometime.”
“But our favorite son’s nickname fits the business a little better, especially because he needed it to invoke the culture and flavor of where his business idea originated,” Reno said. “That would be Texas, and that business is barbecue and our favorite son is Big Tex, Jeff Willey.”
As Willey walked to the stage, Reno said that wife Isabel wanted to acknowledge how grateful she is “for the push and confidence he gave her to start Isabel’s across the street from Big Tex.”
Reno said that son Kendrick and Noland “contributed mightily to this report.”
“And it might be noted that Kendrick was not only similar in temperament and energy to his Dad, they also ended up with the exact same football injury, and in nearly the same spot on a Willcox High School football field – a triple ligament blow out knee injury,” said Reno, adding, “And they still love the sport.”
When it came his turn to speak, an emotional Willey told the audience that he was “living the dream, and doing it for my son and daughter.”
Willey thanked them, as well as wife Isabel and the rest of his family, as well as the community, for his award.