by Lynn Meredith
SUGAR GROVE—In 2011, Willy King was presented with an Angel Award by Conley Outreach for his service as a volunteer. He has lived up to that title all of his life. From his rural upbringing in Arkansas, helping his mother plow the ground for a large family garden, to mowing the lawns of his neighbors well into his retirement, King has been there for those around him, and he has the stories to prove it.
“He will do whatever you need whenever you need it,” said Carol Alfrey, executive director of Conley Outreach. “If he has the time, and if he has the ability, he will do it.”
I spent a delightful afternoon with the unassuming King, who kept me spellbound with the stories from his life. From humble origins in the South, through World War II and on to a career in industry, King has seen his share of national and personal tragedies.
Raised on a farm in Ravensden, Ark., the seventh of 12 kids, King has a love of children and has a way with them, as mothers of fussy tots at the Sugar Grove Methodist Church can attest. King always has a mint ready or an offer to hold a crying child.
“I love kids. I never saw one I didn’t like,” King said. “My mother taught me that. We used to babysit. I thought I should be out playing with the boys, but we had to take care of the others.”
The 40-acre farm grew some cotton and a little corn, but it was the family garden that kept them going during the depression and the rationing in World War II.
“We raised horses, we raised pigs and cows. We planted cotton and a little corn—not much—and we had a garden at home. It was a big garden. I’d have to take the horses and plow that up for my mother. She raised beans; she raised everything,” King said.
His father was a Justice of the Peace, whose influence both helped and held Willy back during his childhood.
“I’ll never forget, this man stole this girl out and came to our house one night to get married. My dad got us kids out of bed. We had to help witness,” King said. “My dad also wrote for the Hardy newspaper. When a boy would come around to see one of my sisters, he’d put that in the paper. He’d say, ‘I kept an eye on him because he didn’t look too honest to me.’ Things like that.”
His father’s position in the small town got him a lighter than expected sentence for things like a crash he was in, but it also hindered him when he wanted to enlist in the army during World War II. King’s father wanted to keep him at home because four of his brothers were already serving in the war.
“Mr. Metcalfe ran the draft board. My father told him he wanted to keep me home. I went back a week later and told him that my dad has two more sons at home and why did he need me to run a 40-acre farm. I told him, ‘I’ll go to one of those small towns ( and enlist there), and there’s nothing you can do about it,’” King said.
In 1945, at the age of 18, King went off for 17 weeks of basic training, but technicalities sent his training group home for 11 days before being sent overseas. He was playing catch in the front yard when his mother came out, gesticulating in a funny way. The kids thought she was acting funny, and then she said to King:
“You don’t have to go back,” she said.
“ Mother, I’m in the Army. I have to go back,” he replied.
“No,” his mother said. “I just got the news on the radio: the war ended.”
Still in the Army but not the war, King was sent to Japan during the occupation, and came home with a respect for the Japanese and some interesting insights. As a cook, he interacted with Japanese soldiers. He was mystified when they would thank him for winning the war. He asked them why they would thank the Americans for beating them.
“They ( the Japanese soldiers) said, ‘But we weren’t hurt. I used to work, but I didn’t get paid. They kill me if I said anything about it,’” King said.
He said that they often had to do things they didn’t want to, like searching people’s homes and retrieving possible weapons. When one woman started crying when he tried to take her kitchen knife, he managed to let her keep it when he learned that it had been passed down in her family. He paid the price when the guard at the door saw him and punished him.
Back on U.S. soil, King moved to Illinois in 1952 to take work at Seal Master Bearings in Aurora. He did quality control inspection and drove every vehicle in the place. He also met his wife there. Coincidentally, she was from a town in Arkansas only 60 miles away from Ravensden. They raised two children.
After a 34-year career at Seal Master Bearing in which he served as the United Auto Workers Union President and on the Alcohol and Drug Committee for both the plant and the union, King retired.
King has seen his share of tragedy. He remembers the day John F. Kennedy was shot. That day was also his birthday.
“I was at work, and the foreman came out—I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘Take the rest of the day off, our President has just got shot,’” King said. “I got home, and it was my birthday, see, and my wife was sitting there crying. I didn’t get a cake that time.”
The worst time of his life struck when his 19-year old grandson, his 47-year old daughter and his 75-year old wife all died within a 10-month period.
“I just about went nuts. I didn’t want to live, and I really thought about doing something about it, but I’m ashamed of it now. My neighbors really helped me, and so did Bruce Conley,” King said. “Bruce and I got to be really close friends.”
These days, King helps at Conley Outreach and runs 13-week grief groups with his son, Willy King, Jr., and his son’s wife, Margaret, at the Sugar Grove Methodist Church. Among other things, he mows on the Conley Farm. Sometimes he just drives through the farm, remembering times he saw Bruce talking with groups of enthralled children.
“I could be down in the dumps and just drive through there and feel a lot better,” King said.