Charles Julius Willis, Sr. was born on March 20, 1931 in rural Mathews County, Virginia. His mother was Marie (nee Williams) Hayes. She was 14 years old at his birth, so his grandparents, Georgia Willis and Cue Willis, also raised him. Charles and his family were active members of Emmaus Baptist Church, which is where he first learned about Christ.
Charles showed strong potential at an early age according to his teachers, but he only received a third grade education as a child. He recalled leaving school at an early age to help his mother raise his four younger siblings Blanche (“Bunsey”), Dale, Mitchell and Patricia as work was very hard to come by and he had to pitch in. By default he became and remained the patriarch of the family. He was also very ambitious and determined - he knew there was more for him to accomplish in life. So at the age of 17, and against his mother’s wishes, he left his family in Mathews County and moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant where a friend of the family kindly took him in and helped him to get acclimated. He remained grateful to Vera and her husband for the rest of his life.
His early years in New York City were tough. Lacking any formal education, he held a series of factory jobs to make a living. He made sure to pay his way with Vera and would send his remaining wages back home to his mother, grandparents and siblings. Charles eventually saved enough to get his own place and rented a series of rooms across the neighborhood over those years. He also decided to go back to school, and his first big achievement at the age of 24 was receiving his GED from an adult learning program at Brooklyn’s Girls High School in 1955. During this period, he was introduced to the piano, which became his primary hobby for years to come. Realizing he needed to further improve his skills to get better paying work, during the early 1960s he took certificate classes in bookkeeping and typing and was able to transition to clerical work.
Charles landed a bookkeeping job at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York with the F. & M. Schaefer Brewing Company, which is now a part of Pabst Brewing Company. This was a turning point, as an unexpected opportunity catapulted his career and provided the foundation for his future as a businessman. His supervisor failed to recognize an impostor posing as a security guard and handed over the company’s weekly cash receipts. He was immediately fired and Charles was selected to replace him and lead the group. Charles nearly turned down the position, due to fear of failure, but was encouraged by senior management and his colleagues. Charles spent the second season as one of the only minority office managers at the World’s Fair. This experience was instrumental in helping him gain the confidence to pursue an entrepreneurial dream and open his own business. He also saved enough money at the World’s Fair to buy his mother a house in Newport News, Virginia, where she and other family members lived for the next 35 years.
In 1966, Charles purchased a bar/lounge on the corner of Cooper Street and Central Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn and renamed it Willis Rendezvous. Given his interpersonal ability and newly acquired business skills, the bar was a hit. He became a celebrity in the Brooklyn bar scene. Money was rolling in and he became a real success. He soon started a family and purchased a house in middle-class Laurelton, Queens in 1969. He was able to open a second bar in the mid-1970s in Springfield Gardens, Queens that he called Hat-Will Lounge, named after his wife Hattie Willis. But times were changing. Thieves frequently targeted his bars and he was personally robbed at gunpoint several times. He knew that he needed to make a change and leave the business. He also realized that something was missing spiritually and, with his family, joined the Tabernacle of Prayer led by Apostle Johnnie Washington in the late 1970s. In 1980, he left the bar business and completely dedicated his life to Christ. He continued to attend Tabernacle of Prayer and in the early 1980s he moved to Dr. C.R. Johnson’s church in Brooklyn, today known as Brooklyn Tabernacle Deliverance Center, where he remained an active member for the next 30 years.
Reentering the workforce was challenging at 50, but he never looked back and was not deterred. He had two young children and his extended family in Virginia still relied on his support. He realized his best opportunity was through New York City’s public service system. He signed up for every city test he could and eventually landed a job working as a dispatcher for the Sanitation Department. In conjunction with his bible college, Brooklyn Tabernacle Community Bible Institute, Brooklyn College, and Ephraim Moore University, he earned a Bachelors and Masters Degree in Theology, with honors, through years of night classes. He was very proud of this achievement as he was in his 50s. He leveraged his degrees to transition to social work in the late 1980s and began to work for the New York City Department of Social Services, where he was an advocate for children and giving back. He became a supervisor in the Child Welfare department until he retired in the mid 1990s.
During his retirement, he never stopped working. Although his health began a slow decline, he continued to pursue activities as an active church member and minister, a real estate investor, musician, and always a proud father. He often did volunteer work, including soup kitchens during the holidays. He was a fixture on Clinton Avenue, working on the garden of his brownstone, engaging his neighbors, and co-hosting the annual block party. Fiercely independent, Charles spent his last 20 years as an inspiration to everyone who crossed his path.
Charles is survived by his son, Charles Julius Willis, Jr. (fiancée Lisa Williams), daughter, Desiré Willis, and his friend and beautiful mother of his children, Hattie Willis, as well as his brother, Mitchell Hayes, sisters, Dale Perry, Blanche Thomas, and Patricia Charlote, six nephews, Mitch, Charles, Daryll, Ernest, Kenny, and Robert, seven nieces, Kim, Theodora, Michelle, Edna, Cheryl Ann, Janis, and Jessica, and a host of grandnieces and grandnephews.