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TMCNet:  Influential Hampton Roads Bishop L.E. Willis dies

[February 20, 2009]

Influential Hampton Roads Bishop L.E. Willis dies

(Virginian-Pilot, The (Norfolk, VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 20--NORFOLK -- Bishop Levi E. Willis Sr., a high-profile South Hampton Roads minister, radio station owner and national leader of the Church of God in Christ denomination, died Friday morning.

Pastor Kendrick Turner of Faith Deliverance Church of God in Christ in Hampton, one of Willis' pastors, said Willis had been in and out of the hospital before he died.

Willis, a charismatic six-footer, was a power in the black community and politically influential 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 was an emeritus member of the COGIC leadership board that oversaw a denomination of more than six million members.

"He believed in young preachers, he believed in giving them a chance in the ministry," Turner said. "He's a man of honor, a man of integrity." Willis became South Hampton Roads' first black radio station operator in 1974. With his distinctively resonant voice, he hosted "Crusade for Christ Hotline," a call-in show on his WOWI-FM and WPCE-AM that he also used to promote his favorite causes.

His multimillion-dollar radio broadcasting business faltered starting in the 1990s because of embezzlement, tax liens, debt and regulatory violations.

Willis' climb to local fame followed twin business and religious tracks. He was born on Feb. 29, 1929 to North Carolina sharecropper parents who lived in a one-room shack.

The family, which included Willis' six siblings, lived in unremitting poverty. "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, "I began to want everything the white man had denied the black man. I didn't want to kneel at the table for crumbs," Willis said. "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 mother'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 bishops' council. In 1982, he became national chairman of the denomination's general assembly, which represented more than 6,000 congregations.

On the business side, Willis began buying homes in the 1950s, owning and renting out as many as 100 at a time before eventually selling most of them.

In the early 1970s, he became board chairman and majority stockholder of Atlantic National Bank, the area's first bank with a multi-racial ownership.

Known as a shrewd businessman, his holdings 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 "The Pope" to close friends, became what some observers called the most influential black individual in Tidewater in the 1980s.

In 1975, he raised a citizens committee and $8,000 for legal fees to successfully discourage renewed prosecution of a black murder suspect who endured three trials with hung juries.

In 1983, he organized a rally where 6,000 people protested officials' proposal to end busing intended to promote racial balance in Norfolk public schools. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the national civil rights activist, led the march.

In 1984, Willis founded the local Rainbow Coalition, which was affiliated with Jackson's political group of the same name. Willis' coalition became known as the most influential black group in local Democratic politics, and he became the party's chairman for the second congressional district.

"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 God's children," he said in a 1984 interview.

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.

"Our children live in an integrated society, but now our children must earn the funds to feel like somebody," he said at a NAACP banquet in 1984.

Willis' 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 mishandling a loan repayment and sentenced to four months of home detention.

Willis' daughter, Christine L. Felton, pleaded guilty in 1993 to embezzling nearly $400,000 from his businesses from 1990 to 1992. Willis' lawyer said in 1997 that the total theft was at least $3 million, perhaps $5 million, and had a catastrophic effect on the businesses.

Willis' 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 Bishop Willis if he did not turn over tax records from Willis Broadcasting for 1995 through 1998. He eventually complied.

In 2000, the IRS filed a $1.2 million lien against Bishop Willis personally for unpaid taxes dating to 1994 and 1995.

In 2003, his son, Levi Willis II, said the bishop'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.

Bishop Willis gave up his state and local Democratic leadership posts in 1989, and his political power waned thereafter.

In 1995, most of Norfolk's black elected officials left the Rainbow coalition, saying he was no longer their political leader.

Steven Vegh, (757) 446-2417, Pilot writer Patrick Wilson contributed to this story.

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