If you’re from Peoria and you were on the internet yesterday, then you’re probably aware of the fact that Willie York, a legendary Peoria character died yesterday morning.
One of the people who probably knew Willie the best is Phil Luciano and he wrote a great story and tribute about Willie in the PJ Star. You can read that story right here. And another one was just published a little bit ago.
I didn’t know Willie as well as Phil, in fact I hadn’t had any contact with him for decades. The last time I remember seeing him was in June of 1993 as I was leaving my job at Fleming Potter. I told him I was moving to New York and he said that he’d like to come and visit me. I told him he was welcome any time, gave him a few bucks and a couple of cigarettes and we parted ways.
Little did I know on that summer day in 1993 that we’d never see each other again. Funny how life works that way sometimes.
I first met Willie in 1990. I was simultaneously working on two cover stories for a magazine I was creating called, “People Of Peoria.”
The first cover story was on all of the morning DJ’s on the radio. By this time in my life I had already learned how to be a full-fledged media whore and I knew that this story would guarantee me wall to wall radio coverage in Peoria when the debut issue hit the newsstands.
The second cover was going to be a profile of Peoria’s most infamous and colorful street person, Willie York. I knew that this would get some decent attention, plus I always wanted to meet this guy.
Publishing POP magazine taught me that writing grants you access to people and places that you’d never be able to experience without the excuse that you’re “writing a story on the subject.”
It was a great life lesson and one of the reasons I got hooked on crafting and cultivating a series of paragraphs into a story in the wild hopes that somebody out there would actually read it.
When I started working on the magazine People of Peoria, I had no idea what I was doing or getting into.
I did know enough however to realize I should have two issues in the hopper before we started because once the deadlines started happening, they would come fast and furious. And boy did they ever.
In fact they haven’t really stopped for me ever since. I’m on one this morning.
At this time Willie was doing one of his many stints in jail and he was doing time at the Henry C. Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Illinois. I called there, found out how to write to him and he granted me permission to come and interview him.
So I drove there with my brother Jim and this adventure ended up being the second cover story for November/December, 1990 issue of People of Peoria.
Jim Kelton designed the cover and laid out the spread in the magazine which you can see below.
I wrote the story with my brother Jim and it ended up being a five page spread. Three of the pages were a story about meeting Willie in jail, talking with him and ultimately getting thrown out after about 45 minutes once the guards realized we were there to write a story on Willie. They said we should’ve gotten permission to do that and led us to the door after we said goodbye to Willie.
I remember thinking when the guards were angrily throwing us out that this was a great ending to the story. I was learning.
All the photos were by photo-journalist Renée Byer and she said this one was one of Willie munching on a cat’s paw. Mee-ow!
After the interview, Willie and I became pen pals and he wrote me a stack of letters from jail. One day they stopped showing up in my mailbox and then shortly after while driving around downtown Peoria I saw Willie covered in make-up doing his street schtick for anyone that would watch him and maybe throw him a buck or two for a half pint of gin.
I pulled over, got out of my car and had a reunion with him on the street corner. I remember that in addition to the white make-up on his face, he had a necklace of bones with flies buzzing around it.
He always referred to me as, “The Magazine Man.” I loved that title he gave to me and have always been proud of the fact that I’m pretty sure I’m the only person to have ever put Willie York on the cover of a print magazine.
I made a list of some of Willie’s favorite things for a sidebar within the article, two of them were Leavenworth Prison and baked cat. Speaking of baked cat...
In one of Willie’s letters he sent me some of his roadkill recipes. I love the obsessive detail he went into with these! I think the best line is: “fry to your likeness on camp fire.” There’s something poetic about that line!
And note, these are roadkill recipes, Willie pointedly told us in our jailhouse interview that he never killed any animals. He just ate the ones that were dead on the side of the road. Actually he did the city a clean-up service!
This is a photo of one of Willie’s campsites and a rare photo of Willie outside of jail in the winter time!
My friend Matt Buedel posted this on Twitter yesterday, fitting words for the end of Willie’s era.
Goodnight, Willie. I hope there was three cartons of Kool Cigarettes and a case of Gordon’s Gin at the tail-end of your rainbow.