Rev. H. Walter Willis Jr, Oak Ridge

Rev. H. Walter Willis, Jr., age 90, slipped peacefully from this earthly life into the arms of his Lord, on February 9, 2022, at his home in Oak Ridge, TN. His beloved wife, Joyce, son, Tim, and daughter-in-law, Portia, were by his side. Walter was first and foremost a pastor and servant of God. With a twinkle in his eye and a quick smile, he loved each individual who crossed his path. No matter how brief the encounter, he knew each person by name. Rev. Willis was a native of Sylacauga, Alabama, and a graduate of Clark College and Gammon Theological Seminary. He was ordained as an elder in the Methodist Church when the denomination was still racially segregated. He faithfully served local churches in Alabama, Tennessee, and Eastern Ohio.

His first pastorate was in Montgomery, where he became friends with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Ralph Abernathy as they were organizing to end segregation. In 1971, Rev. Willis accepted an appointment to Kern Memorial United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, becoming the first African American pastor to serve a white congregation in the denomination’s Southeast Jurisdiction. He was named Minister Emeritus of Kern and continued worshiping there until his death. Walter’s ministry stretched beyond the local church. He served as chaplain at Claflin University amid the violent backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. He served as one of the first African Americans on the editorial staff of the Methodist Publishing House in Nashville. From 1975 to 1981, he was District Superintendent of the Maryville District in Tennessee. He returned to Nashville as Director of Ethnic and Minority Local Church Education for the General Board of Discipleship. Music was the language of God that resounded most sweetly in Walter’s heart. His beautiful tenor voice lent itself to many choirs and to the Kern quartet, the Oreos. He often interspersed conversations with hymn verses. Walter was a caring husband to his first wife, Claudia, for 54 years until her death in 2011.

He was a loving & proud father of three sons and a daughter who, along with his wife, Joyce, all survive him: Henry Walter III & wife, Anita, of Chattanooga, Timothy & wife, Portia, of Cookeville, Stephen & spouse, Chris Gonyo, of Toledo, and Lisa Willis of Oak Ridge. Also surviving are granddaughter, Lizzie Willis; niece, Carla Quarles; and nephew, Charles Quarles.

In lieu of flowers, Walter requested donations to Kern Memorial UMC, 451 E. Tennessee Ave, Oak Ridge, TN 37830, or to the charity of your choice. The family will receive friends 12-2 pm Saturday, February 19, 2022, at Kern Memorial UMC in Oak Ridge.

A celebration of life will be held at 2 pm followed by inurnment of ashes in the church Memorial Garden. The remainder of Walter’s ashes will be taken to Nashville to be interred with his first wife, Claudia. Online condolences may be left at

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