Retired journalist reconnects with late father with new business venture

After a career as a journalist, author and professor, Jim Willis found himself looking for a focus after he retired earlier this year and moved to Winchester full-time.

He turned his garage into a workshop, but he didn’t have anything to work on.

Slowly, the idea for a new business developed and presented itself to give Willis a bit of an outlet as well as something to do.

“Oddly, it’s helping me connect with my Dad,” he said. “We never had as much of a connection as we wanted when he was here. I feel like I’m in partnership with him.”

His business is called Artstrings, which fills one booth in the Olde Red Barn Mall on Winn Avenue.

“He left a lot of artwork. He got to be an entrepreneur with his art. I’ve been collecting guitars over the years,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about selling some of those. It all seemed to come together one day when I was thinking about Dad.”

Willis, an Oklahoma native, married Winchester native Anne in 2000, but hasn’t lived in Winchester full-time until this year.

In August, he retired from teaching at Azusa Pacific University in California, the latest in many jobs that took him across the country and the world through his career.

“We went to virtual learning in March,” Willis said. “I came back home then. I really hated to give it up but I felt it was time. I retired in 2017 but it didn’t feel right. I had a lot of gas in the tank, and I still do, but I didn’t have a focus.”

Willis un-retired to continue teaching fact-based reporting. Earlier this year, he realized there were other voices to carry the cause, so he could step out without feeling like he was abdicating the cause, he said.

Being retired frees up a lot of time, though, and Willis wasn’t sure how to fill it. Then he got to thinking about his father, William James Willis Jr., who passed away in 2006.

The elder Willis earned his college degree in art, but spent his career in TV in Oklahoma City beginning in 1950. When he retired, he plunged into the art world full-time, first with oil and then pastels.

Willis Jr. spent 30 years painting, and eventually opened a series of cooperative art galleries called Artisans 9 Gallery throughout Oklahoma.

After Willis Jr. died in 2006, a lot of his art work remained with the family.

“Dad loved painting,” Willis said. “He loved art. Mom was there helping all the way.”

With time in retirement, the idea developed and grew until Willis started looking for a location.

“One day I was so bored at the house, I had to get out and drive,” he said.

After driving aimlessly around town, he stopped at Main Street and Winn Avenue, and found the Olde Red Barn.

“By the time I got through the door, I thought, ‘I need to get one of these booths,’” he said.

The business is starting to find a footing, he said, for however long it lasts.

“Stuff is starting to sell,” he said. “If it makes money, fine. It not, it serves a higher purpose.

“I don’t know where it will go and how long it’ll go. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to start a business in the middle of a pandemic.”

About Fred Petke

Fred Petke is a reporter for The Winchester Sun, the Jessamine Journal and the State Journal. His beats include cops, courts, fire, public records, city and county government and other news. To contact Fred, email or call 859-759-0051.

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