After the Willis family suffered an immense tragedy — the victims in one of the biggest scandals in Illinois political history — they quietly disappeared from the spotlight.
Then the Willis Clan popped up.
The band of a dozen brothers and sisters — the grandchildren of a reverend and his wife who who lost six of their children nearly 20 years ago in a van crash linked to the licenses-for-bribes scandal that landed former Gov. George Ryan behind bars — played concerts and festivals.
Then they were featured on a niche network’s reality show.
Last summer, the band fought to be named the winner of NBC’s talent show, “America’s Got Talent.”
They were cut, but that night, they hinted they’d be back in the spotlight.
Now the Tennessee-based family has a new show on TLC, which will premiere May 5.
“The Willis Family” will follow the group as it records an album — to be released in May — but it will also follow the 14-member family and their “day-to-day life,” said Brenda Willis, the matriarch of the family.
That includes homeschooling, dance practice and other more mundane parts of their life on 150 acres of rural land near Nashville.
The show is still being filmed but the network said in one episode viewers will see Brenda Willis struggling with “mountains of laundry and meal planning for 14,” putting off her own birthday celebration. But her kids won’t let that happen and they write her a song, which they perform at the famed Grand Ole Opry.
Brenda Willis said the show is not scripted and her kids, ages 4 to 22, are being themselves.
“I never know what my kids are going to say,” the proud mom said.
It’s not yet known if the children’s grandparents will be featured on the show.
The grandparents, the Rev. Duane and Janet Willis, lost six of their children in a 1994 van crash after a piece of a taillight assembly fell off a semitruck 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 band member’s father and Brenda’s husband, Toby Willis, was not in the van that caught fire and claimed the lives of his siblings. His parents survived.
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.
The Willis family history didn’t come up when they performed on “America’s Got Talent” last year.
But Brenda and Toby Willis don’t shy away from talking about it. Their kids know about the uncles and one aunt who were kids themselves when they were killed.
The family, though, hasn’t let tragedy hold them down.
“We are just really excited people will be seeing the positive, beautiful life we get to live,” Brenda Willis said.