Tragedy to Triumph: The Willis Family, 20 years after the van crash claims 6 of 9 children

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“I’m Jada, I’m Jaeger, I’m Joy, I’m Jamie, I’m Julie, I’m Jazz, I’m Jedi, I’m Jack, I’m Jet, I’m Jen, I’m Jair, I’m Jess, I’m Brenda, and I’m Toby. And we are the Willis Clan!” Two parents, twelve kids; a talented family with Irish musical roots straight from the South side of Chicago.    Toby Willis is the older brother of the six Willis children who died in a fiery van crash near Milwaukee 20 years ago this Saturday. And as WGN’s Steve Sanders reports, that crash is the narrative of their lives.

CLICK HERE TO SEE WILLIS FAMILY WEB EXTRAS

We first met the Willis Clan in August when they came to WGN to perform on our Midday news. We followed them to Milwaukee’s Irishfest, but we didn’t just for for the music. They were planning a surprise tribute for the first responders who’d tried desperately to save Ben, Joe, San, Hank, Elizabeth and Pete on November 8th, 1994.

The Willis’s like big families, and we mean really big. Brenda married Toby. He’s the second of Reverend Scott and Janet Willis’s nine children. “When the accident happened, I was married, had two kids, and actually we had #3 on the way.” “I was pregnant with Jenny," says Brenda. “And, the first thing my Mom said was, “Bren, you’ve got to remember to take care of yourself. You can’t get so overwhelmed emotionally that you’ll hurt the baby that you’re carrying.”

That unborn baby, now 19-year-old Jenny, wrote a song for her lost uncles and aunt called, “Road to Watertown.”

“It’s a happy piece. But it still has some of those chords in there that are like heart wrenching. When we play it, I don’t think about the accident.” It was mid-morning when Jenny’s grandparents, Reverend Scott and Janet Willis, were on their way to Watertown, Wisconsin to visit their son Dan and his family.

Near Milwaukee, they ran over a piece of metal. Though suffering severe burns on their hands and faces, Reverend Scott described the scene: “When we hit the object, the rear exploded taking the car out of control. The fire was around us even before the van stopped sliding and I was yelling to get out of the car.”

Despite their heroic efforts, the youngest five children died immediately; the eldest, Ben, the next day. Again, Reverend Scott. “Benny’s courage,13 year old especially (breaks down). That’s a great memory.”

People around the world were deeply saddened, yet amazed by the couple’s strength. “The depth of pain is indescribable. The Bible expresses our feelings that we sorrow, but not as those without hope.”

The Willis tragedy also exposed a political scandal in Illinois when it was learned the truck driver, whose rig lost that piece of metal, had bribed a state worker for his license. The resulting federal investigation and cover-up sent dozens of state employees to jail, including former Illinois Governor George Ryan.

Five years later, the Willis’s thanked the people of Chicago. “I’m thankful to all the people to the city of Chicago and all the people who have been so good to Janet and me.”

In August of 1999, the Willis’s won a $100 million out-of-court settlement.

"We have the joy of the Lord. We do have 15 grandchildren that come to the house and are a great joy to us. They’re not replacement kids, they’re just a great joy.” Toby Willis says it changed the way their family looks at life.

"After losing the brothers and sister, it really helps focus on what’s important.” …Important this August night at Irishfest; thanking the people of Milwaukee on the 20th anniversary of the crash. Toby isn’t the only surviving sibling with a large family. Older sister Amy and her husband Alan have nine kids. And brother Dan and his wife Kim, have 13. Grandparents, siblings, cousins, came from Tennessee, Michigan, and Illinois to say thanks.

One by one, the Willis family filed on stage, standing shoulder to shoulder as the unsuspecting crowd watched a videotaped tribute. Toby, who created the video and runs audio for the band, watched the reaction from the audience.

“When you have thousands of people kinda stand up and acknowledge the situation, it was very moving for me.” Brenda believes it was therapeutic for the audience as well. “People came back to us after that and were just overwhelmed with thoughts and memories of the accident. But then they were so uplifted by seeing all the kids on stage, the whole family together.”

“A lot of them were so surprised,” says first born Jessica. “They had no idea that our family had gone on to -part of our family had gone on to do this.”

The Willis Clan lives in Tennessee now and has doubled in size since moving from Chicago in 2001. The kids are all home schooled, and their days are filled with music and family; those present and past. A wrestling photo of their lost uncles is a constant reminder to appreciate every loved one, every day. Grandparents Scot and Janet followed Toby’s family to near Nashville in 2004, just in time to help their second son and his family recover from a house fire that destroyed most of their earthly possessions.

Brenda sees it this way: “My mother in law went through a fire and she lost her six kids. I went through a fire and I didn’t lose any of mine.”

"When the house did burn down you I’m like I’ve had worse happen to me you know,” Toby said.

It’s a whole new perspective on life. And they believe they’ve been given a platform to help others going through tough times. That platform now includes regular appearances at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the country music capital of the world. On nights like this, they pinch themselves to be playing between the legendary Lee Greenwood and country music superstar Keith Urban.

“The neat thing about our band is it’s kinda perpetual,” says Brenda. “We have the younger ones coming up and they love to sing and they love to dance and they are learning to play instruments.”

Even with 12 kids, Toby is a relaxed man. “We wake up in the morning and say what’s gonna happen today? It just seems like the roller coaster goes up and down up and down. After a while you quit trying to grab on and quit trying to steer, you just throw your hands up and go let’s just enjoy the ride.”

We want to make sure you caught the fact that Scott and Janet Willis’s three surviving children now have a total of 34 grandchildren! We’ve compiled numerous exclusive web extras, including the entire Milwaukee tribute, and the Willis Clan performances from the Grand Ole Opry. You can find them at wgntv.com/WillisClan.

Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalists Mike D’Angelo and Carlos Cortes contributed to this report.

http://www.thewillisclan.com/Home.html

 

24 comments

  • Zebra Stripes

    Its a shame the people of Illinois forgot those children and elected another Republican Governor. BT Barnum was right.

    • Shelley

      Yeah, because Rauner had everything to do with that tragedy 20 years ago and is the spawn of George Ryan…SMH

      • ZebraStripes

        If it wasn’t for George Ryan, the Willis family wouldn’t need a tribute. In the GOP mindset, that makes its all OK, right? They should be thankful to him. Hell, let’s put him in the White House in 2016! He’s a HERO!

  • John Culley

    The Willis clan should write and perform the world’s first country/blue opera/ballet telling the story of their family rise from tragedy to triumph as only those who have experienced the actual events could. It would be a great inspiration and would give them a chance to further develop their already impressive singing and dancing skills.

  • Wendy

    WOW…I never put 2 and 2 together when I was watching the Willis Clan on tv…I didn’t know that Toby was one of those surviving from that crash. How amazing is it then, that his family is SO blessed and successful? They certainly deserve it!

  • Ace Calderon

    These people should not be praised. They created an over abundance of people in one family. Had they only had 2 kids, they would have had more money which leads to a safer car where most likely no kids would have died. Their selfishness (disregard for overpopulation/ economic hardship of having multiple kids) led to deaths of people who didn’t need to exist anyway. So in theory those kids who died, died because their parents were selfish and had blatant disregard for societal standards.

    • Adrian

      That was by far the dumbest statement I have ever read…..a person has the right to bear however many children they please.

    • L Burkhart

      You are the most ignorant human being I have ever heard from! Do you have a tough life or some other pathetic reason why you made that statement? Poor baby, get a life you sad human being !!!

    • Mm

      What’s an “overabundance” of children? I’d say having ONE child who was as ignorant and obnoxious as you would be an overabundance!

    • Tara

      Right… And I’m sure you’re one of those who believe abortion is a means of birth control and a great way to control the human race. Too bad you’re about 80 years too late for the nazis, they could’ve used a guy like you!

    • Melinda

      And I’m going to guess that the surviving three children have a total of 34 children, not grandchildren. I understand that the writer meant that Scott and Janet Willis have 34 grandchildren thanks to their three surviving children, but it was clumsily worded.

  • B mueller

    It’s pretty sad how the parents exploit their children. They have plenty of money behind them but still try and put their children out there. I watch a lot of tlc shows but this one does not work. I know they got a little fame from AGT but that doesn’t mean a lot. I worked with the Howard stern show for 5 years and everyone on that show earned their fame and money, Would love a response to change my mind. Thxs

    • Bill

      Ya Know, I was grabbed and pulled into the new show. I LOVE Country music. I LOVE that the WILLIS “Family” is together and that they have “family values” but after reading the story, I can’t respect the parents. They were “paid” and now capitalizing on their tragedy. God Bless their children but the parents are exercising the 7 deadly sins. Am I wrong?

  • Penni Fry Johnson

    Dear Toby Willis Family, until literally just moments ago, I had no idea you were the older brother of a family I have prayed for for twenty years! Shortly after the tragic accident, my three year old daughter and I were unable to avoid a large trucking implement that fell from a truck directly in front of us. The memory of your family’s tragedy was fresh in my mind, and I nearly tore the childseat belts out of the van to get my baby out and away…through a field of puncture vine…and she was barefoot. While the situation did not end tragically, thankfully, I am sure I reacted as I did because I knew of your parent’s tragedy. I have prayed for their peace of mind and serenity to look to the future; you all certainly have. I am so happy to see your family. You are all refreshingly “real”! Blessings and more to all of you as you navigate life! I will certainly continue to pray for you all.

  • John Lucky

    I’m sitting in an auto body shop waiting for and estimate and the Willis show is on so I looked then up and came here. Wow what a tragic yet beautiful story.

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