Some men wander aimlessly through life taking the path of least resistance.
Others charge through with great enthusiasm continually searching for new challenges.
Pat Willis is the latter — a man always reaching out to set new goals, no matter how daunting they might first appear.
Willis’ passion has earned him the respect of most all who have crossed his path, especially fellow members of the Mogollon Sporting Association.
“He is on about every board of directors there is in Payson because everyone respects him, his voice and his opinion,” said Greg Dorn, a longtime hunting buddy and fellow MSA member.
Dorn also lauds Willis — who is courageously battling cancer — as a true friend, “What we all know about him is that he will do anything for anybody.”
Willis’ contributions to the MSA over the past 12 years prompted the association to recently wrap up a project to name a stock tank after him.
The tank, formerly known as “Pasture Tank” is located east of Payson past the old Doll Baby Ranch.
“He lives out in that area and loves to go quad riding out that way, it’s a favorite place of his,” said MSA member Gary Barcom.
Convincing the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Forest Service to rename the tank was no easy task. But members thought enough of Willis to jump through every hoop government bureaucracy threw their way. The effort paid dividends Aug. 3 when the renaming became official.
“It’s a tribute for what he does for (MSA),” said member Jack Koon.
Amy Hill, who formerly worked with Willis at a local bank, believes Willis is highly deserving of the honor.
“It couldn’t be given to a better man,” she said. “He has worked countless hours for the MSA over the six years that I have known him, and he supports all the efforts of the organization as an avid sportsman.”
Willis has for the past 10 years been one of the most active members of the association serving as president, treasurer and on the board of directors.
He’s also teamed with Barcom on several MSA-sponsored wildlife projects.
Willis, born and raised in Mesa, is a member of the association partly because he loves to hunt and fish.
“He’s probably taken more elk than anyone I know,” Dorn said. “And he’s a very good fly fisherman.”
Dorn, Willis and friends often travel to Utah and Colorado for deer and elk hunts when they are not lucky enough to get drawn for an Arizona tag.
“On our hunting trips, we name the campfires he builds ‘The Willis Fire’ because they are so huge they might appear to be a forest fire to anyone flying overhead in a 747,” Dorn said.
On some of the hunting trips, Willis opens up to friends about his Vietnam War experience as a member of the 173rd Airborne Infantry, nicknamed “The Herd.”
“That was a tough outfit,” said John Naughton, Roundup publisher, who served in the Marines during the war.
One of the stories Willis has told his friends around a campfire centers on a night he was on guard patrol at a jungle outpost surrounded by barbed wire.
“He’d hang bells on the wire to signal if anyone was trying to sneak in,” Dorn said. “One night he heard the bells ring and turned on the floodlights only to see a black panther.
“Now here is a man who hunted all his life but called his CO (commanding officer) to see if he should shoot the panther.”
The officer nixed that idea telling Willis if he shot the animal he would spend a minimum of 90 days in the Army brig.
“So here was this big game hunter with big game in his sights and he couldn’t pull the trigger,” Dorn said.
Willis’ experiences in Vietnam prompted him to chair a committee that twice brought the Vietnam War Memorial Wall to Payson.
Most recently, it appeared at Green Valley Park in June 2008.
About 20,000 people turned out to see the wall and pay tribute to those who died in the service of their country Willis told Payson Roundup reporter Pete Aleshire that the memorial provided an opportunity to honor the nation’s entire war dead, including the young men still dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We think it is really important that it is coming to Payson — not only because it’s the 25th anniversary of the creation of the original wall, but the other things going on in the world right now,” Willis told Aleshire.
What many onlookers did not understand at the time the wall was set up in Payson, is the tremendous amount of work Willis and the Tribute Wall Committee had to do to get the memorial here.
Willis said his committee used the “begging method” to convince the American Veteran Traveling Tribute to make a stop in Payson while moving the wall from Albuquerque to Los Angeles.
Following the memorial’s appearance, thanks flowed in from those who visited.
In the Payson Roundup’s letters to the editor, M.S. Jones wrote, “Thank you, Pat Willis and committee for bringing the Traveling Wall to Payson, I hope it was a healing experience for all.”
A man for all seasons
Willis, who some friends call a “Man For All Seasons,” serves his community in many other ways including being president of the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation, on the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce board, Payson Regional Medical Center board, a longtime Rotary Club member and last year was the grand marshal of the 124th Payson Rodeo Parade.
He also is well-respected for helping jump-start several small community banks in Payson.
His efforts have not gone unnoticed.
“He is the most hardworking generous man I have met,” Hill said.
“He has spent countless hours serving the community on non-profit committees and helping small and large businesses with their financing needs and counseling employees with both personal and career tragedies.”
As a charter Rotary Club member he’s often asked to give speeches, which usually bring plenty of belly laughs.
“His speeches are usually about hunting and his (wildlife) calls,” said Hill. “He has every call in the world and he uses them in his morning Rotary Club speeches.”
His contributions to the town also extend into the local sports scene.
The winners of the recent town-sponsored Home Run Derby — Jadie Plummer, Tamara Crabdree and Malia Richards — donated their $500 in prize money to the Gracie Lee Haught Foundation in Willis’ name.