BIO: A Spokane Legend -- For more than 50 years "Wild Willie" was a fixture in Spokane. People remembered him as the robust mountain man who wore only a pair of shorts summer and winter and traveled with several animals. He was also known as a kind person, hard worker and a disciple of nature who dressed in his unique attire year-round.
Born a twin in 1884 in Mount Ayr, IA, Willis Roy Willey soon developed an appreciation of nature. His love of the outdoors drew him to Spokane in 1905, when he was a pale, skinny, sickly young man. Willie, perhaps in an attempt to strengthen his immune system, started to shed his clothing about the time WWI started. Gradually, as his body acclimated to cold temperatures, Willie wore fewer clothes until he was down to a pair of shorts and sandals. His lack of dress did, in fact, help his health problems, as he no longer suffered from colds even though he would often go polar bear swimming and ice skating on Libery Lake in 1930. As Willie's health problems disappeared he put on some muscle and life became more interesting to him. Because of the way he dressed, the clothes he wore and his philosophy about nature, he inherited nicknames such as "Wild Willie, the Nature Boy," "Wild Man" and even "Tarzan." Other cities referred to him as "Spokane Willie." He was also called an "Original Flower Child" and an "Early-Day Hippie," but he roamed the county and spread his philosophy and way of life long before Woodstock. After his untimely death, Willie was referred to as "Spokane's Ambassador of Good Will."
Willie made his living doing odd jobs for people around town, salvaging iron and twisted car parts. He worked construction on Farragut Naval Training Station in shorts and carpenter's apron, where he earned a reputation of being a hard worker.
Later, Willie sold picture postcards of himself and his animals out of his car that he built using parts from an Overland, a Model T and other cars, and he sometimes lived in his car. When he traveled he relied mostly on the sales of his postcards and any money he could make by scavenging along the roadside. He collected bottles and traded them in at stores. In his postcards he is often barefooted, smiling and relaxed, looks healthy as do his pets.
Willie was known for his kindness and his sense of humor. It is said that the shelves of his home were lined with clocks and Willie would say, "C'mon in, I've got all kinds of time." Willie's pets were almost as famous as he was. He was always seen with a horde of little creatures. Over the years he raised dogs, rabbits, mice, guinea pigs, raccoons, parrots, shrews, coyotes, skunks, turtles and even a monkey. After Willie's death local organizations stepped in to take care of his animals.
Willie made a new pair of shorts out of mountain lion hide to go to the World's Fair in Chicago in 1933, the shorts also had a shoulder strap which tended to give him the appearance of a cave man. He traveled cross-county in a 1904 Reo and encountered police in every city, was arrested and jailed a number of times because of the way he dressed. During his stay in Chicago's jail, his hair and beard were cut off and he became sick for the first time and stayed sick for three months!
1940 found Willie and his dogs and other pets at Treasure Island, San Francisco, and postcard collectors may have that one in their collection as well.
At one point Willie traveled back to his mother's funeral in Iowa and left his animals to the care of his nephew, A. E. Murphy. Disagreements and misunderstandings apparently lead to a court summons and a judgment against Willie when he didn't show up in court - the final result was that his 40 acres of land were sold to a man named Francis Cavers at a sheriff's auction. Willie, continuing to return to the land he believed was still his, was fined for trespassing several times but chose, instead, to serve time in jail. Eventually, he agreed to not go back to the land and Spokane police eventually grew tired of arresting him every time someone complained about his clothing and they stopped sending him to jail.
After his death on May 12, 1956 - passing out from a condition of cerebral edema while at the wheel of his car, hitting a tree and dying on impact - the people of Spokane realized how much they missed him. His body was laid in state, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, at Hennessey Funeral Home, and was visited by hundreds of people. His grave is at Fairmount Cemetery.
-- Excerpt, "Nostalgia Magazine"