A framed photo of the late Dr. John Willis (’55) and his wife, Evelyn (Forrest ’56), graces the fireplace mantel at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store on Highway 351, a testament to the power of a shared meal.
Willis, a beloved Bible professor at ACU for 46 years, was well acquainted with the deep connections that form when people gather around a table. For years the couple filled their home on Campus Court every Sunday night with students, serving spaghetti or some other student-loved but low-cost meal.
When preparing meals for a large group became too much for Evelyn, they moved their gatherings to local restaurants, the favorite being Cracker Barrel. There they hosted groups from as small as two to as many as 30 at a time, says Grace Hunter, longtime restaurant manager.
Willis died Aug. 21 at age 89, a little more than a year after the death of his wife. When news of his passing began to circulate, so did the stories from former students, colleagues and others who experienced his simple and radical hospitality.
Though he was a world-renowned Old Testament scholar and prolific author, he was best known for his love and care for students – bringing cookies to every class, remembering countless names and birthdays, and, of course, the shared meals.
Hunter met the Willises shortly after the Abilene Cracker Barrel opened 16 years ago. “One Friday evening, they came in, taking up most of the third dining room with young ACU students,” she said. As their frequent visits continued, the staff came to love them, touched by the genuine interest they took in everyone they encountered.
Hunter’s account of Evelyn’s support during a challenging chapter in her life underscores the bonds they formed. “My childhood was a very unfortunate one, and there was no family love,” she said. “Evelyn held my hand, and we prayed a lot to help me heal inside. She was an angel on earth.”
As time went on, John and Evelyn began to eat at Cracker Barrel more frequently, often twice a day and once on Sundays. Hunter felt it would be fitting to honor them by placing their photo above the fireplace.
To do that, she first had to get corporate approval, something that isn’t granted very often but was worth the effort. “We – all the managers and our staff – want to see their faces daily,” she said.
When John and Evelyn’s grown children – David Willis (’79), Dr. Tim Willis (’81), Paul Willis (’83) and Deborah (Willis ’80) Doss – came to visit, the Willises took them out to eat – at Cracker Barrel, of course.
“What we children noticed when we ate there with our parents is how they did what they always did – they showed love to everyone who worked there,” said Tim, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a professor of religion at Pepperdine University.
His parents conversed regularly with the waiters and waitresses and the greeters and cashiers, he said. “They knew about everyone’s immediate families, the births of babies and grandbabies and nieces and nephews, illnesses and accidents and deaths. They knew about school applications and exams and projects and graduations. They knew about job applications and promotions and moves and vacations. They received each person’s news without expressing judgment, but with genuine interest and occasional advice and endless encouragement,” he said.
“We kids laughed about it all, but we also felt proud amazement at how their presence was a source of joy to so many,” Tim said. “They loved, and they were loved. It was as simple – and profound – as that.”
– Robin Saylor
Sept. 2, 2023