BY SELENA FRAGASSI | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
The story of The Willis Clan was destined for television. Twelve talented children, ages 4-22, touring in a family band alongside their high school sweetheart parents is the perfect mix of “19 Kids and Counting” and “The Partridge Family.”
Not surprisingly, the Great American Country channel caught on first in 2013 with a reality show profiling the daily life of the brood — homeschooling, music lessons and sports competitions — from their base in rural Nashville, Tennessee. Then, last year, came “America’s Got Talent” where the Clan’s Irish folk-pop covers of Huey Lewis’ “The Power of Love,” Owl City’s “Fireflies” and “The Sound of Music,” all set to traditional jig choreography, won over both judges and viewers.
THE WILLIS CLAN When: 8 p.m. Jan. 23 Where: Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox Tickets: $25 Info: Visit irish-american.org
Although dad Toby Willis says he turned down offers from the reality competition “many times” over the years, the national exposure they’ve since received has been unparalleled and also eerily reminiscent of a time when the family was a recurring headline in Chicago newspapers.
Toby is one of the older sons of Reverend Duane “Scott” Willis and his wife Janet, who lost six of their young children in the infamous 1994 van accident that became the cornerstone of the license-for-bribes scandal that dogged former Governor George Ryan.
At the time, Toby — a Northwestern graduate — already had two children of his own (Jessica, now 22, and Jeremiah, 21) but was still a strong influence in his siblings’ lives.
“I was coaching them in wrestling and music. Ben had just written his first piece of music and played it for me two days before he passed away,” he recalls. While tragic, the accident was also life-affirming for Toby and his wife, Brenda, who had always discussed having a large family and were more inspired to continue with that mission. That support system also helped when the Clan lost their home in a Christmas fire 10 years ago, something that has forced Toby and his wife to focus on “all the good that has happened in the last 20 years.”
The two Chicago natives first met in high school, where they bonded over church and music; she played guitar, he played piano. After marrying, they moved to the South Side, where their combined Irish heritage started to become more culturally relevant, culminating in a performance of “Riverdance” that sparked the idea for their family group.
“It was a watershed moment for us,” says Toby. From then on, “the arts were not optional for our kids.” As much as reading and writing were part of the daily educational curriculum, so were Irish and swing dance and classical, pop, rock, jazz and blues music, all helped by the family’s move 13 years ago to Nashville, where the hundreds of concerts the kids have been to — from traditional Irish-American bands like Altan, Dervish, Solas and big names like Michael Buble and U2 — sealed their fate.
None of the kids was forced into the group, but none has wanted to leave, either. “With this whole big family undertaking, each person has grown to find their own strength,” says Jessica, 19.
As the older kids mature into adulthood and consider the idea of branching off (a rumored deal with Warner Bros. Records didn’t pan out), for now the Clan is intact with a third album due soon and a new reality show reportedly in the works.
“Everybody tells us you’re stronger as a family than doing anything separately,” says Toby, “so for now everyone’s staying together.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.