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Like Rutherford B. Hayes, Frank Bartlett Willis was born in Delaware County. And like Hayes, he served as governor of Ohio.
Many believe that, also like Hayes, Willis might have been elected president of the United States, were it not for his death at the height of his political career.
Willis was born December 28, 1871, in Lewis Center.
A graduate of Galena High School and Ohio Northern University, Willis was described by Ray E. Buckingham in his informal history, Delaware County Then and Now, as a "born politician."
Willis taught law and history at Ohio Northern and served as a state representative from Hardin County before his election in 1910 to the first of two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
He was elected governor in 1914.
Buckingham noted that Willis was a "huge, handsome man with an enormous appetite especially for country-fried chicken and chocolate bonbons. His ability to retain names of people was legendary … A heavy smoker of stogies, he was violently opposed to the use of liquor … Possessor of a rich booming voice that carried to the far reaches of huge crowds, he manipulated this God-given talent with finesse and aplomb."
Although he failed twice to win re-election as governor, Willis succeeded in winning two terms in the U.S. Senate. He was in his second term when he died unexpectedly on March 31, 1928 as he attended a Willis-for-President rally in Ohio Wesleyan University's Gray Chapel.
As Buckingham described it, "All the hoopla associated with political rallies was evident throughout the town: banners, flags, pictures, torches, noisemakers and store and home decorations. A carnival spirit reigned as Willis paraded down Sandusky Street to Gray Chapel where an overflow crowd awaited him."
The Republican Glee Club sang "End to a Perfect Day." As the last notes faded in the distance, Buckingham said Willis rose from his seat "as if to breathe in a deep breath of fresh air, collapsed and fell dead."
Other accounts said Willis felt ill and walked to a hallway behind the stage, where he collapsed.
Despite the fact that he died just before Ohio's primary, Willis received 70,000 votes, prompting some to speculate that he would have defeated Herbert Hoover in the primary.
But other political experts were skeptical that Willis would have won the nomination, Buckingham noted, agreeing that the most he could have expected would have been a vice-presidential nomination
Willis Middle School is named in Willis' honor. The building was dedicated in 1932. Formerly a junior-senior high, it became an intermediate school in 1962, when Rutherford B. Hayes High School opened.
Willis' former residence at 264 N. Franklin St. is owned by Ray P. Singleton, according to Marilyn Cryder of the Delaware County Historical Society.
The following article by Gazette staff appeared in the millennium series of articles in The Delaware Gazette.