William Willard served as a Chancery Court Judge and Clarksdale Municipal Judge for more than 20 years combined, but to those who knew him in Coahoma County, he will be remembered for much more as a friend and someone who touched countless lives.
Willard was at Peter's Reef, Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, while scuba diving with his family, when he died on Nov. 25. His visitation is 9:30 a.m. Thursday at Oakhurst Baptist Church with the funeral following at 11.
He was a Clarksdale Municipal Judge from 1977 to 1986 and Chancery Court Judge for Bolivar and Coahoma counties from September 1998 until he retired in 2010. He became a Chancery Court Judge when Harvey Turner Ross died in a wreck, but was then elected to the position three times. He was a general practice attorney in Clarksdale from 1974 to 1998.
Friends, family members and colleagues took the opportunity to reflect on their memories of Willard.
"Uncle Bill was the rock of our Willard family," said Willard’s niece Jen Waller, who is the director of the Coahoma County Higher Education Center. "We were all shocked to hear of his passing and we are heartbroken by the loss, but we find comfort in knowing that he has been reunited with his beloved parents, Mr. and Mrs. William G. Willard, Sr., and his soul mate, Betty Stone Willard. We believe that he is now basking in the Holy presence of God and we are very grateful that we had him in our lives as long as we did. He was amazing."
Attorney John Cocke for Merkel & Cocke, P.A. graduated with Willard from Clarksdale-Coahoma High School in 1965. He recalled Willard being named Mr. CCHS, being elected Vice President of the student council and a great player for the Wildcats basketball team. Willard was a center and teammates included local businessman Jimmy Harris and the late Jimmy Wilson.
“He came out of Rena Lara without a whole lot of background to succeed like he did, but he just did a great job,” Cocke said.
Willard went on to play for Mississippi Delta Community College.
Ted Connell, also an attorney for Merkel & Cocke, P.A., recalled his father, the late Ed Connell, practiced law with Willard for 35 years.
“He was definitely a father figure to me,” said Connell of Willard. “He taught me how to water ski.”
Connell said he worked as an associate with Willard after moving back to Clarksdale from 1997 to 2000. He recalled Willard woke up at 3 a.m. daily and his father was also an early riser.
“He would go for a walk and then I would come in about 6:30 or 7 (a.m.) and he and my dad and I would solve the world’s problems for about 45 minutes every morning,” Connell said. “I certainly gained a lot of wisdom from hearing him and my father about what was going on the world, Coahoma County and Clarksdale and the law.”
Willard practiced law as a mediator after retiring as a judge.
“He was very wise and he was able to bring people that were very different in thoughts together at the table,” Connell said. “William was definitely self-made.”
Connell said Willard put himself through college playing basketball, was a Marine and fought in Vietnam and put himself through law school at the University of Mississippi and graduated in August 1974. He completed his Bachelor of Science degree at Delta State University in January of 1969, and then joined the United States Marine Corps, before serving in Vietnam.
“He had a unique ability to get along with everyone,” Connell said. “It didn’t matter if you were white or black, rich or poor, where you were from, what your background was. He gained the respect of everybody. So being a judge and mediator, that was extremely beneficial because everyone respected him, no matter who you were and where you came from.”
Attorney Ralph Chapman of Chapman Lewis & Swan PLLC met Willard when both were students at the University of Mississippi law school in 1972.
“I still remember the first time I met him,” Chapman said. “Big, tall muscled up slender guy. He was wearing these plaid pants. He was standing out there in front of the bulletin board at the old law school.”
Chapman said law professor Aaron Condon asked Willard how he felt about a case during a class and the two disagreed.
“He didn’t accept the constructive criticism that Professor Condon wanted to imply because William thought he was right,” Chapman said.
Most students did not react that way, according to Chapman.
“William was a Marine and had served in Vietnam,” Chapman said. “While the rest of us over here were doing this, that and the other, he’s over here on top of a mountain over there with a whole bunch of people. His assignment was to hold that hill mountain in Vietnam and he did that and came back out.”
Chapman said Willard could also sing. Chapman and Willard, whose law offices were across the street from one another, worked together many times and were also on the opposite sides of several cases, but the circumstances did not matter.
“The thing I could tell you about William was, if you were his friend, you were his friend for life,” Chapman said. “He may not see you for a year, but when he saw you, it was just like there hadn’t been any time passed at all.”
Retired chancery clerk Ed Peacock worked with Willard while he was a chancery court judge.
“He was one of the finest individuals I have ever known in my entire life,” Peacock said. “He was always kind, considerate, thoughtful and did things for people behind the scenes. He was strong in his religious beliefs and taught Sunday School for years at Oakhurst Baptist Church and was a wonderful family man. He was an outstanding attorney and was primarily a mediator handling mediation cases in lawsuits. He was just a very well-respected attorney. He was an outstanding judge and well-respected by fellow judges.”
Current circuit clerk Demetria Jackson expressed similar sentiments.
“Judge Willard touched so many lives in Coahoma County!” she said. “He was compassionate, treated people in a respectful manner, and always had a smile. He was a great Judge and he will truly be missed.”
Former Clarksdale city commissioner Buster Moton remembered Willard, not for what he did as an attorney or judge, but the way he helped people. Willard’s family owned the clothing store Willard's Dry Goods located at 219 Fourth Street, which is now Martin Luther King Boulevard.
“William was ahead of his time when it came to helping poor people,” Moton said. “William was the type of guy it didn’t matter what color you were or who you were. His thing was, if you were right, then he’ll stand up for you. That’s what I remember William Willard as, as someone who would stand up for low income people.
“His family had a clothing store downtown years ago and they sold clothes. When people couldn’t afford to pay for those clothes, they would actually give those clothes to those people.”