Thursday, January 27, 2011

Remembering Monk Willis

LONGVIEW, TEXAS — We came to remember Monk Willis on a cold January day, the First Presbyterian Church filled with friends and his extended family. Monk’s service was handled by four Presbyterian ministers and included eulogies from two federal judges who considered him a mentor. He planned the entire affair, I’m told, down to picking the hymns and coaching the distinguished jurists on what to say.

Achille Murat “Monk” Willis Jr. died at 94 on Jan. 14, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in early August. Unlike most of those attending his funeral, we were friends for just a short time. We packed a pile of friendship into the 27 months we knew each other.

A retired surgeon — who was active in Republican politics and brought judicial candidates around to meet me at the sundry East Texas newspapers I ran over two decades — served as matchmaker. “There’s someone you need to meet,” he said. “He’s 92 and another damn liberal like you.”

At lunch that day, Monk regaled me with stories about running Lyndon Johnson’s political campaigns in East Texas, going to four national Democratic conventions, working in Washington D.C. as staff director for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and what books he was reading. We became friends that day — eating lunch at least once a week, spending hours talking about politics, philosophy, history and even football. I even drove him to the tobacco store to buy cigarettes before he finally gave up smoking not long after turning 93.

Monk gave himself that nickname when he moved to Longview in 1946 to open an insurance business. He was the scion of a prominent Virginia family, product of exclusive private schools and held a master’s from Harvard Business School. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he decided that his new bride and he should make their own mark. They picked East Texas because of the pine trees and rolling hills, he said. But he feared nobody would be able to pronounce his given name of Murat, which sort-of rhymes with “hurrah.” He said his mother never forgave him for taking the moniker of Monk. But it stuck.

Monk read more than any human I’ve met. I’m quite certain is going to have a sluggish first quarter since his death. He bought books by the case, adding them to the stacks heaped in his study, since the shelves had long been filled, and sprawled across the dining-room table, more piles arrayed around his easy chair in the front living room. His tastes inclined to history and political analysis, though on occasion he would delve back into Greek mythology or philosophy. He subscribed to the New Yorker for more than 70 years, along with an armload of other magazines, from the New York Review of Books to Mother Jones and Texas Observer. An insomniac, he would read into the wee hours, then go online to read newspaper Web sites.

He would grow exasperated when I didn’t finish a book he loaned me quickly enough to suit him. “What in the world is taking you so long, Borders?” he’d growl with that Virginia drawl. Pointing out I had a day job only slightly mollified him.

Monk’s circle of friends included anyone who interested him, from the mechanic down the street to the wealthy, powerful and aging lions of Texas politics from the 1960s and 1970s. His connections got him appointed a regent at the University of North Texas for 18 years, under four different Texas governors. The main library at UNT is named after him. Nothing likely pleased this modest man —who never made much money but instead accumulated the wealth of knowledge, friends and good deeds performed — more than having a library named after him.

My father died two years ago this February. After his funeral, I received a card from Monk with a quotation I learned he often used to comfort the grieving. In his punctilious handwriting, he wrote: “All that we can know about those we have loved and lost is that they would wish us to remember them with a more intensified realization of their reality. What is essential does not die but clarifies. The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.”

Monk’s note ended: “I’m sorry we didn’t meet sooner, but let’s try to make up for it in the time I have left.” I believe we did our best to do so. Like so many folks whose lives he touched, I’m a better person for having known Achille Murat Willis Jr.

Thanks, Monk.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), January 27, 2011.


  1. What a beautiful tribute. Monk lived a worthy life, and I am glad to know him through you.

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  3. I learned of Monk through my wife his second daughter. He intreaged me so much with his stories on so many occasions. we visited him for 1 weeked a month for his last 12 years, and a smarter man I don't believe I know. He will surely be missed in our house, and we will love and honer him till the day we die.

  4. Gary,
    This made me cry. You certainly captured an accurate picture of him. I miss him so much. I am thankful for the friendship that the two of you shared. Thank you for your devotion to him during the time you knew him.