I asked readers to remember Willie York with their favorite anecdotes. With minimal editing, these are their Willie tales:
Christmas Willie: I used to work at the Palace Theater on Main Street in Downtown Peoria when I was a teen. Willie would come in from time to time and mildly harass and rib us, and we would harass him back. He got into it a few times with a theater employee named Mary, who was quite rough around the edges and cursed like a sailor. One day, she had her fill of him and ran him out of the theater! A short time later, at Christmastime, he came strolling in with a white duffel bag over his shoulder. He approached Mary and dropped the bag on the floor. He told her he was sorry for any ill will between them, and he said he had something for her. He reached down into the bag and pulled out a pretty pricey large makeup kit. He handed it to her, and said, "Merry Christmas!" Mary was quite shocked at the gift, and received it with appreciation, and told him "Thank you, and merry Christmas to you also, Willie.” — Dave
Willie's "condo": Years ago, I was sitting down at the Pour House on Main Street. Back then, some bars sold packaged liquor. Ol’ Willie York strolled in to get himself a bottle. For whatever reason, they wouldn't sell it to him. He walked out , I bought the bottle for him and followed him out. He thanked me and invited me to his house. We walked down Main Street, drinking a bottle and having an interesting conversation. He kept telling me about his condo and how cool it was. We walked a bit further, to the alley behind the old Big Al's, and there it was — Willy's cardboard condo! I sat with him and helped him drink his bottle. R.I.P. Willy. — Andy
Homeless helper: When Sophia's Kitchen opened in March 2010 to feed the homeless, very few people came to visit us — until one day Willie stopped in. He asked what we had for lunch. I told him it was chicken. As I handed it to him, I pointed to his necklace and remarked, "But it's boneless.” He got a pretty big kick out of that and began bringing other homeless people to get lunch. He made sure that the newly homeless knew about resources in the area, and how to take care of themselves. — Claire
Voodoo hex: Sixteen years ago, Willie York put a "voodoo hex" on me for dumping out his alcohol. He told me it would haunt me the rest of my days. A month later I was married and have been everyday since. Damn you, Willie! Where'd you ever learn that voodoo? This is a true story. — Shawn
Duck tale: He invited me to eat a duck dinner with him. One day, he came up from the river with a mallard around his neck. He looked at me and said, “Let’s go, Tommy! You been good to me. I will fix you dinner.” — Tom
Cellmate: I spent 30 days in jail with Willie, one of the most caring intelligent men I've meet. Of course, that's when he was sober. He was wild and crazy when drunk, and I liked him that way too. His drawings were the coolest because they had great meaning. I have a few. Saddens me he is gone but he will never be forgotten. — Tim
Dragon slayer: My office is Downtown. From time to time I would encounter Willie. I would stop and say hello, ask him if he needed some water or offer him something from my lunch bag. One day I said, "Hey, Willie, where did you get those bones on your necklace?" He replied, "Well, Mr. Paul, these bones are from dragons I slayed to protect all my friends out here on the streets. I wear them so when other dragons see them, they know I’m a dragon slayer." I played along and said, "Wow, really?" He laughed at me and said, "How old are you?" I said, "I'm 45," to which he replied. "In all them years, you ever see a dragon, Mr. Paul?" I said "I can’t say that I have" He laughed and said, "Me either." — Paul
An earlier version included a passage attributed to the incorrect author. It has been deleted.
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.