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story.lead_photo.caption RICK PECK/Special to McDonald County Press John Willis

Thousands of McDonald County residents still call John Willis by his school name, Mr. Willis.

Though some of these former students are now close to 70 years old, it's still Mr. Willis -- not John. That's because of the respect Willis earned in his 24 years as principal at McDonald County High School.

For his leadership as the face of education in McDonald County for those 24 years, Willis will be honored at the fifth annual Heart of Education Banquet on Saturday, March 10, at McDonald County High School.

Willis came to McDonald County in 1967 -- one year after the construction of the McDonald County High School -- after serving as superintendent of schools in Burbank and Perkins, Okla.

His first teaching job was in 1953 in Norwood, Okla., where he taught junior high math and science. After one year in New Mexico, he returned to Oklahoma where he taught science and math at Billings (Okla.) High School and served as principal before he became superintendent at the two small Oklahoma schools.

Willis remembered his first tour of the "new" McDonald County High School with Basil Kissire, superintendent of the newly formed school district. He said Kissire showed him several spots where the new school had been vandalized.

"I was expected to straighten things out," Willis said. "The first day of school, the president of the student council came up to me and said, 'We ran that principal off last year. How are you going to treat us?' I put my finger in his chest and said, 'Buddy, as long as you treat me like a man, I'll treat you like one. I am going to leave you guessing on what's going to happen if something happens to the school.' You know, I didn't have a bit of problem from anybody. I think the word got around."

Willis was principal in the school's glory days of athletics -- the two state championships and a runner-up by the girls' basketball team and a third place by the boys.

"I liked it, but sports weren't where I focused," Willis said. "I was proud of them, but academics were what I really pushed. I loved teaching physics and chemistry. If you want a hard course in college, take physics. In later life, physics will be more valuable than any other course you can take. It teaches you mechanics and a lot of important items."

Willis liked working with students in their classroom assignments even after he became a principal. "Kids would come into my office wanting me to help them," Willis said. "I would never hesitate to take time out to help them. I tried my best to be fair to everybody. I tried to treat everyone the same. I didn't care if their dad was a millionaire or a pauper, he got treated the same. I think the kids knew that. I also had an invitation that they were welcome to come to my house and stay one night. Not more than one night, but they could stay one night."

Some of those kids that Willis helped have gone on to great success in life, which Willis takes pride in. "I am real proud -- really proud -- of our graduates," Willis said. "My God, we have doctors, lawyers and merchants; and a lot of the kids who didn't go to college went on to do well."

After retiring in 1991, Willis turned to his hobbies of fishing and woodworking. In typical Willis fashion, his fishing hobby turned into benefit fish fries and his woodworking projects ended up as gifts to friends and neighbors. Willis still helps out in his neighborhood. He has fixed a floor for one elderly person and has done several other projects for others.

Since his retirement, Willis has developed neuropathy, the loss of feeling in his lower legs, that has slowed him down some, but he still mows his own lawn and raises a garden every year.

He said he got "volunteered" for the award by his wife Lola after a member of the McDonald County Schools Foundation called to tell him about his selection. "It's a good thing they are doing," Willis said. "I appreciate it."

Willis and Lola were married in 1949. They have four children, all who graduated from McDonald County High School, Nyta, Butch, Phyllis and Tracy. They also have two grandsons who are McDonald County graduates.

In addition to the presentation of the Heart of Education Award to Willis, this year's banquet will include a student showcase with displays and performances of various student programs. The meal will be catered by ProStart, a culinary program at MCHS.

The student showcase opens at 5:30 p.m. with the banquet and program to start at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available at Mustang Drug or at the school district's administrative offices in Anderson, Waco Title in Pineville and The Cornerstone Bask in Southwest City.

Table sponsorships are available for $250. For more information, call Alice Snodgrass at 417-529-6555.

Community on 03/01/2018

Print Headline: Mr. Willis Honored At Fifth Annual Heart Of Education Banquet

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