A tranquil silence dwells in the hallways and the glass-ceiling foyer of the Onstead-Packer Biblical Studies Building.
And ever so quietly, you hear small footsteps – muffled, shuffled and hushed as to not disturb the presence of the godly scholars residing behind the closed office doors. With hunched shoulders, squinty eyes hidden behind bifocals and a pack of half-eaten Chips-Ahoy cookies, Dr. John Willis strolls through the dimly lighted hallways to his office centered in the middle of the corridor. Ever since 1951, John knew he wanted to live life to the fullest. All he needed was the love from his students, his colleagues and his wife and to love the Lord – with all his mind, heart and strength.
After teaching for over 61 years and spending 46 years of those at ACU, Willis has decided it’s his time to wander into the unknown, the wilderness, the journey to the mountaintop: retirement.
Born on Nov. 21, 1933, Willis was one of four children born in during some of the darkest times in American history.
From his early beginnings, Willis lived a different life than most people. His memories include World War II, the assassination of president John F. Kennedy and even the death of his 3-year- old brother. He recalls a small coffin, arms-width wide, lying in the middle of the living room for three days containing the weak, cold body of little Ernest Albert.
“We are put here on earth to live a full life,” expresses Willis. “After this one, well, we’ll just go to heaven, I guess. I hope.” said John, as his voice begins to soften and his eyes began to gleam.
And he’s right. Nothing is for granted. Graduating from Abilene Christian College in 1955 and receiving his masters in 1956 and ultimately his doctorate degree in 1966 from Vanderbilt University, Willis always knew he wanted to teach Bible.
“When I was at ACC, I got very interested in the Bible, and as an undergraduate I majored in Greek,” Willis pauses. “And then I became a Christian and went from Greek to Hebrew. After that, I got into Old Testament for my masters degree.”
His soft, crackling and almost muffled chuckle spreads an infection of smiles in any room he’s in. Whether he is laughing with you, at you or at himself, Willis loves a good joke or two. His clever puns and witty biblical remarks can make even the sharpest of scholars stumble.
“He never passes my office without stopping to ask a question or make a joke,” said Dr. Clifford Barbarick, assistant professor in the Biblical, missions and ministry. “His example continually challenges me to reorient my priorities and remember that my highest calling as a professor is to nurture the spiritual formation of my students and colleagues.”
Known for being the cookie man with the hardest tests, Willis always felt that his students are the ones who inspire him to keep up with the times regardless of his age or preference.
Emily Adams, a junior speech pathology major from Frisco, said Willis was her Old Testament professor during her sophomore year, and she remembers how immediate the connection was.
“From the first day, we had an immediate friendship,” said Adams. “He gave me valuable advice for many of my life decisions, which have helped me greatly. He always reminds me that there is never an end to the learning that can be done in life.”
His quick thinking and alert demeanor never fails to prove that just because you’re older doesn’t mean you’re finished or forgotten.
“In my estimation, John is by far the most famous and friendly of all our professors,” said Dr. Royce Money, chancellor of the university. “I know John first of all as a man of God and second as a world-class Old Testament scholar. You put all these impressions of John together and you get a real glimpse of a humble follower of Jesus who has impacted thousands of ACU students.”
Even his own colleagues remember their first interactions with him when they were students.
Dr. Kilnam Cha, assistant professor in the Biblical, missions and ministry, remembers how Willis was not only his teacher, but also his mentor. Cha recalls the summer of 1992 when John decided to jog on the third floor balcony because the streets of Jerusalem where not safe at the time. Unaware of Cha’s presence, John jogged around and around the tiny balcony while Cha admired John’s persistence for his daily exercise.
Fast forward 20 years and look at Willis now. Still teaching students, still cracking jokes, still smiling his cheeky grin and still inspiring teachers to be more intentional with their classrooms.
“Dr. Willis always had a knack for combining the personal touch with academic excellence,” said Dr. Rodney Ashlock, chair of the Department of Bible, Missions and Ministry.
Indeed, Willis is a unique man who seems to believe that loving one another is the best thing one can do. No matter what your title may be or whether you believe in God or not, John is willing to care for you (and maybe even offer to take you out to eat).
“Dr. Willis would stop in my office on many occasions to just make sure things were going well or even to give me a hug ‘hello'” said Tina Chisholm, who works in the College of Biblical Studies. “He and his wife, Evelyn, would often invite us to lunch or dinner to make us feel welcomed and loved. A friendship I will take with me for a lifetime.”
And now the mountaintop calls for its John.
“I’m 83 years old, so I just think it’s about time to, you know, retire.” said John.
Over the years, Willis has grown from being a student to being a scholar to being a valued member of the kingdom of God. His deeper understanding of God has allowed him to see see life for what it really ism – ultimately, terminal.
“I hope and pray that over the years I have changed my views about God,” said John. “I have always believed in God, but I think I have a much closer relationship with God than I had 40-50 years ago.”
With four children in various parts of the world, 14 grandchildren and six great grandchildren, Willis and his wife, Evelyn – or Eleven as he likes to call her because she is just in between ‘a ten and a twelve’ – he hopes to travel the world and see them more often.
“We’re gonna live for a short period of time on Earth and then we’re gonna die and to me it’s so obvious that there is so many things we cannot do if God doesn’t do it,” said Willis. “The surprising thing is we have two legs, two eyes, two hands, we can breath, we can walk and all that is a gift from God.”