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Family from Treasure Coast hoping hurricane casualty is not their brother



Jimmy Willis and sister Eileen Snow

Jimmy Willis and sister Eileen Snow of St. Lucie West appear in a photo taken about two years ago in the Keys.

BY GREGORY ENNS

A family with deep ties to the Treasure Coast is hoping to make contact with their brother from whom they haven’t heard since Hurricane Irma swept through the Florida Keys last weekend.

Jimmy Willis, a Vietnam veteran who grew up in Fort Pierce, lived aboard a boat off Stock Island near Key West. Authorities have reported finding the body of a man in his 60s with gray hair and a beard in a partially sunken boat in Cow Key Channel off Stock Island.

Michael Willis of Jacksonville said this morning that he and Jimmy’s siblings are holding out hope that the body is not that of Jimmy, who is 69 or 70 years old.

“We’re at a loss,’’ Michael Willis said. “It may not be him but it fits his description, and the location has us concerned. It’s a boat off Stock Island. That’s exactly where he lived.’’

Willis said he has received word from a good Samaritan named Rick Davis who was in Cow Key Channel this afternoon who reported that Jimmy’s boat did indeed sink. But he said that Jimmy’s dinghy had also been pulled to shore and a shelter was nearby.

Willis said Jimmy knew the dangers of hurricanes but also had weathered storms aboard boats before. He lived a Spartan lifestyle without electricity, telephone and television news. “Up here on the mainland we couldn’t get away from the news, whereas Jimmy maybe he didn’t know the severity of storm,’’ Willis said.

Willis has been in contact with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and and has provided a photo of Jimmy to them. Family members are waiting for the Keys to be reopened to traffic so they can check on him.

After attending John Carroll High School in Fort Pierce, Jimmy was drafted into the Army and saw combat action in Vietnam and 1969 and 1970. “When he came back he wasn’t the same,’’ Michael Willis said. “After Vietnam, he stayed in Fort Pierce for a little while and then moved down to the Keys in the mid-1970s and he’s been there ever since.’’

Willis said Jimmy spent many years as a carpenter refurbishing Conch houses and later worked as a dishwasher at a Benihana restaurant. All the while he lived alone on a series of boats. He’d even had built his own wooden houseboats. Michael Willis said one of the boats in which his brother lived burned while several others were destroyed in the weather. His boats were always moored near the Cow Key Channel, where because of his longevity his residency been grandfathered when other moorings were outlawed.

“We have what we lovingly call a Jimmy check,’’ Willis said. “ Because he doesn’t have a phone, we have to stand on the seawall with an air-horn calling for him until we see his head pop out of the boat.’’

Coincidentally, Willis said his sister and brother-in-law, Eileen and Bob Snow of St. Lucie West, had planned a Jimmy check last weekend but their plans were interrupted because of the hurricane.

Michael Willis said his brother is so independent that a decade ago he refused to accept a 23-foot Winnebago he purchased for him to live in. “He was your old rugged independent,’’ Willis said. “He won’t come off that damn boat.”

“He said don’t worry about me. I’m happy as a clam. I’m living a life in paradise. He was always telling us, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ ’’

Jimmy Willis is a member of the prodigious Willis clan that for decades ran the high-profile Tom’s Furniture store in downtown Fort Pierce. Jimmy was one of 12 children of store owners Tom and Catherine Willis, who died 1970. When Tom Willis died of drowning in 1974, the Willis children, some still in elementary and high school, were left orphans. Grown siblings stepped in to help raise the younger siblings and hold on to their father’s dream home, built on South Beach in Fort Pierce, and keep running the furniture store.

“We stuck together, we kept the beach house and business going,’’ Michael Willis said. “We just kind of circled the wagons, so to speak. We didn’t go to any orphanages. We stayed together.’’

Four other Willis children — Tom Jr., Billy, Danny and Joey — have since died. The family has a long history of military service. Besides Jimmy’s Army service, Tom Sr. was a Navy veteran. His sons Tom Jr., Michael and Ed also served in the Navy.

Michael Willis said he is hopeful that a television newscast planned for tonight in the keys will help lead to the whereabouts of his brother. He is asking that anyone with information contact him at hmcwills@live.com or 813.928.4703

“He’s ridden out storms before,’’ Michael said. “I’m hoping I wind up with egg on my face and he did go to a shelter.’’