Bishop Levi E. Willis Sr., an influential South Hampton Roads minister, radio station owner and national leader of the Church of God in Christ denomination, died Friday morning. He was 79.
The Rev. Kendrick Turner of Faith Deliverance Church of God in Christ in Hampton, one of Willisâ„¢ pastors, said Willis had been in and out of the hospital before he died.
The Rev. G. Wesley Hardy, one of Willisâ„¢ administrative assistants, said the bishop had diabetes and had been ill for four or five years.vWillis, a charismatic 6-footer, was powerful among blacks and a political force across South Hampton Roads in the 1980s.
He founded and led the Garden of Prayer, a large congregation now located on Church Street in Norfolk. He also was an emeritus member of the COGIC general board that oversaw a denomination of more than 6 million members.
Å“He believed in young preachers; he believed in giving them a chance in the ministry, Turner said. Å“Heâ„¢s a man of honor, a man of integrity.
In 1974, Willis became South Hampton Roadsâ„¢ first black radio station operator. With his distinctively resonant voice, he hosted Å“Crusade for Christ Hotline, a call-in show on his WOWI-FM and WPCE-AM stations he also used to promote his favorite causes.
His multimillion-dollar radio broadcasting business eventually faltered starting in the 1990s because of embezzlement, tax liens, debt and regulatory violations.
But Willisâ„¢ overall success was a testament to his extraordinary determination and vision, said Hardy, who leads Cathedral of Faith Church of God in Christ in Chesapeake.
Å“He just oozed leadership, Hardy said, and was Å“a person who looked out for the common man. ¦ He never forgot his humble beginnings.
State Sen. Yvonne Miller, D-Norfolk, said Willis encouraged her to seek public office in the 1980s and contributed to her campaign.
Å“And he always said, ‘Iâ„¢m not interested in running. Iâ„¢m just interested in having good people in office,â„¢ Miller said from the General Assembly on Friday. Å“Bishop Willis was a giant of a human being.
Willisâ„¢ climb to local fame followed business and religious tracks. He was born in 1929 to North Carolina sharecropper parents who lived in a one-room shack.
The family, which included Willisâ„¢ six siblings, lived in unremitting poverty. Å“It brought us to a point where we did not know if we would survive, he said in a 1979 interview.
As he grew up, Å“I began to want everything the white man had denied the black man. I didnâ„¢t want to kneel at the table for crumbs, Willis said. Å“I wanted a seat at the table.
The family moved to Norfolk when Willis was 16. He sold household products door to door, then started a bus service. After a couple years of wild living in Philadelphia ” he was shot during a street fight ” Willis returned to Norfolk, where he was born again as a Christian in his motherâ„¢s church.
Willis was ordained in 1954. Starting in a one-room church, he saw his congregation grow, as well as his stature . In 1970, he became the youngest chairman ever elected to the COGIC national bishopsâ„¢ council. In 1982, he became national chairman of the denominationâ„¢s general assembly, which represented more than 6,000 congregations.
On the business side, Willis began buying homes in the 1950s, owning and renting as many as 100 at a time before selling most of them.
In the early 1970s, he became board chairman and majority stockholder of Atlantic National Bank, the areaâ„¢s first bank with a multiracial ownership.
Known as a shrewd businessman, Willis amassed holdings that included ownership interests in motels, a funeral home and , briefly, The Journal and Guide, a black-oriented newspaper.
By 1987, he owned 18 stations around the country; by 1989, there were 23 in the multimillion-dollar chain. Willis, known as Å“The Pope to close friends, became what some observers called the most influential black individual in Tidewater in the 1980s.
In 1975, he formedÃ‚ a citizens committee and raised $8,000Ã‚ in legal fees to successfully discourage renewed prosecution of a black murder suspect who had endured three trials with hung juries.
In 1983, he organized a rallyÃ‚ at which 6,000 people protested officialsâ„¢ proposal to end busing intended to promote racial balance in Norfolk public schools. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the national civil rights activist, led the march.
Audiences were riveted by Willisâ„¢ preaching and speeches, said the Rev. Joseph N. Green, a former vice mayor of Norfolk who called the bishop Å“a self-made man.
Å“He had natural gifts, a charisma about him. He could speak to the masses and they accepted his voice, what he had to say, and his leadership, said Green, who called Willis a friend and political ally.
In 1984, Willis founded the local Rainbow Coalition, which was affiliated with Jacksonâ„¢s political group of the same name. Willisâ„¢ coalition became known as the most influential black group in local Democratic politics, and he became the partyâ„¢s chairman for the 2nd Congressional District.
Å“I long to see Norfolk as a model city where we move beyond considerations of race, to higher ground, into a partnership as all of Godâ„¢s children, he said in a 1984 interview.
Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim, a city councilman for more than 20 years, said Friday that Willis Å“was very often a moderating influence and a positive influence on racial relations in the city.
While he worked with white political allies, Willis also denounced the economic inequality he said blacks still faced because of historical and modern racial bias.
Å“Our children live in an integrated society, but now our children must earn the funds to feel like somebody, he said at an NAACP banquet in 1984.
Willisâ„¢ business and political arc started spiraling downward a few years later.
Federal banking regulators closed Atlantic in 1989 after citing illegal and unsound practices.
The Internal Revenue Service and the state of Virginia filed liens against several of his stations for failure to pay taxes. He paid off the debts after selling WOWI-FM in 1989.
The troubles snowballed in the 1990s. In 1992, he was convicted of a felony in federal courts for mishand ling a loan repayment and was sentenced to four months of home detention.
Willisâ„¢ daughter, Christine L. Felton, pleaded guilty in 1993 to embezzling nearly $400,000 from his businesses from 1990 to 1992. Willisâ„¢ lawyer said in 1997 that the theft was at least $3 million, perhaps $5 million, and had a catastrophic effect on the businesses.
Willisâ„¢ broadcasting company was showered with liens and lawsuits based in unpaid bills and loans.
In 1997, Willis paid more than $700,000 to settle charges of music piracy ” playing copyrighted songs on the radio without paying licensing fees.
In 1999, the Internal Revenue Service sought contempt of court charges against Willis if he did not turn over tax records from Willis Broadcasting for 1995 through 1998. He eventually complied.
In 2000, the IRS placed a $1.2 million lien against Willis for unpaid taxes dating to 1994 and 1995.
In 2003, his son, Levi Willis II, said the bishopâ„¢s illness in 2001 caused financial problems for the broadcasting company. The business sold some of its stations to cover debts, including $150,000 in back city taxes.
Willis gave up his state and local Democratic leadership posts in 1989, and his political power waned thereafter. In 1995, most of Norfolkâ„¢s black elected officials left the Rainbow Coalition, saying Willis no longer was their political leader.
But he remained an inspiration to many people, including Miller. His death, she said, Å“is a major loss to our community.
Details on funeral arrangements were unavailable Friday, as was information about Willisâ„¢ survivors. Metropolitan Funeral Service in Norfolk said it was hand ling arrangements.