Nearly 20 years ago, it would have seemed almost impossible for the Willis name to be synonymous with catchy songs, cheerful dances and an appearance on a national TV talent show.
Back then, the family’s name unwittingly became associated with tragedy and political corruption after six Willis children were killed in a fiery van crash in a case that became the symbol of the licenses-for-bribes scandal that would lead to the downfall of former Gov. George Ryan.
But now, as the Rev. Duane “Scott” Willis and his wife, Janet, try to keep a low profile after years in the public eye following the loss of their young kids, their grandchildren seek the spotlight.
The grandkids, ages 3 to 22, make up The Willis Clan, a band of singers, musicians and dancers.
The group, based in Tennessee, recently appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” where judge Howard Stern compared the family band to “The Partridge Family” and noted “you’re so much more talented” than the Osmonds. The Willis Clan is currently preparing for their next appearance later this month.
The elder Willises are “proud grandparents,” said their son and his wife.
“I think they want to show people a positive side,” said Brenda Willis, the mother of the 12 kids and the wife of Toby Willis, whose six siblings perished in the van accident. “It’s been very tragic and very negative over all these years. I think they’re very excited about putting a positive spin on the story and showing the beautiful things that have come since then and how the family is strong and together and has been able to pick up the pieces and go on.”
The Willis grandchildren and their parents live outside of Nashville on 150 acres of rural land. Their grandparents live nearby.
Brenda, 45, and Toby Willis, 44, moved to Tennessee in 2001 with six children in tow. They had six more there.
By then, their oldest kids already showed some artistic talents.
Their youngest son (and second oldest kid) Jeremiah, now 21, had taken to stealing his older sister’s tights and imitating Mikhail Baryshnikov. He was also a musical “prodigy” and masterfully played instruments, like the Irish tin whistle, his parents said.
While still in Chicago, the family became a fan of Riverdance and got their kids involved in Irish dance.
Now their kids dance, sing and play a variety of instruments. They’ve won a myriad of awards, including the 2012 Fleadh — the world’s championship in Irish Music in Ireland, according to the family’s biography.
They’ve also performed at the Grand Ole Opry and at Disney World. Last year, the family appeared in a reality show, also called “The Willis Clan,” on Great American Country.
They’re also athletes and some of the younger Willises take after their dad, a wrestler who was Illinois state champion when he was a senior in high school.
Brenda and Toby Willis have made their family’s immense loss no secret — their children have five uncles and one aunt who were just kids themselves when they were killed in 1994.
That November day, the senior Willises and some of their kids — Benjamin, 13; Joseph, 11; Samuel, 9; Hank, 7; Elizabeth, 3 and Peter, 6 weeks old — were in a van headed to Watertown, Wis., to visit Dan Willis, an older son.
In their path was a piece of a taillight assembly that had fallen off a semitrailer rig driven by a trucker who had, with the help of an intermediary, obtained his trucker’s license by bribing a corrupt worker at an Illinois state licensing facility, which Ryan once headed as secretary of state.
The collision caused the minivan to ignite, killing the children. Duane and Janet Willis survived the crash with severe burns. Toby Willis and two siblings were not in the van.
Former Gov. Ryan told Chicago Sun-Times Columnist Michael Sneed that he prays for the dead children “daily,” though he feels no responsibility for their death.
“It was a terrible, heartbreaking thing to have happened to the Willis family,” Ryan said.
When reached by a Sun-Times reporter, the former governor said he knew of the Willis Clan, but “I have no comment on that.”
A federal investigation into corruption at Secretary of State facilities in the bribes-for-license scandal eventually ensnared the governor, who was convicted of racketeering and fraud. More than 75 people were convicted in Operation Safe Road.
Ryan was not charged in the crash that killed the Willis children, but his trial included testimony about him putting an end to an investigation that sought to find out what role corruption played in the children’s deaths when he was secretary of state.
Ryan was released from prison last year.
In Toby Willis’ home now, there are pictures of the brothers and sister lost in the accident.
“There’s no way to hide that this is the way life is. That bad things happen and we want them to give them an accurate picture of how the world really is,” Toby Willis said of telling his kids about the family’s tragic loss. “We don’t shelter them.”
The third oldest Willis Clan member, Jennifer, 19, has written a song in memory of the family members that perished. The instrumental, mournful song is called “Road to Watertown.”
In August, when the Clan appears at Milwaukee Irish Fest, they will likely mark the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, Toby and Brenda Willis said. The kid’s grandparents may even send some remarks, Toby Willis said.
Toby Willis said his family never heard from Ryan, and he wouldn’t expect to.
“If we did, we’d be very cordial and we would probably all cry, maybe for a little different reasons, all cry over the same tragedy,” Toby Willis said.“I think my parents would sit down and have lunch with George Ryan and have a very cordial conversation, at least from my parents’ perspective. That may surprise a lot of people, but you know we’re called to forgive and move on.”