Tribute to John Willingham
Pitmaster extraordinaire & legend in his own time
By Mike Newton
To say John Willingham was a pitmaster extraordinaire would only scratch the surface... He was a legend in his own time.
I first met John in 1990 at the 2nd annual Jack Daniels Invitational. I was there at the invite of Frank Bobo, Master Distiller. My application for judge had been declined, but Frank kindly encouraged me to come and join in on the festivities. As I wandered the fairgrounds on Friday afternoon, checking out all the prep activity, this one particular rig caught my eye. It was a gooseneck trailer with every award imaginable painted on the side, and a fellow was vigorously but lovingly rubbing a stack of St. Louis ribs. As I stood there watching him, I couldn’t help but notice a pungent smell from the rub. So, being the curious sort, I asked the inevitable question, and the rest of the afternoon turned into BARBQ 101!
John took me under his wing and gave me the full treatment, beginning with his philosophy of “why you leave the membrane on” and wrapping up with the ultimate invitation to join him and his team up on the hill that night for “The Party”.
Thus began a long and interesting friendship with one of the most unique individuals I have ever met. It became apparent early on as he sketched out his concepts and philosophies on a napkin while he talked nonstop, that this fellow was not only complex, but entertaining. A gracious host, he and his lovely wife Marge invited me into their home, extending their southern hospitality many times. I joined him at many events: Tryon, NC; Napierville, Ill.; The Jack, to name just a few, but nothing compared to Memphis in May. I was amazed at all who came by, sharing a story if they could get a word in, but obviously and mainly to pay their respect.
To me, John is “The P.T. Barnum of BarBQ”! He shared his enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit with anyone and everyone. Beyond the pit, he was an author, politician, scientist, engineer, artist, businessman, restauranteur, and a loving husband and father. But most importantly to me, he was my friend.
If you don’t believe you can,
If you always wonder if you should,
You will never know if you could.
If you never, ever try,
You will forever wonder, “Why?”
What could have been,
But never was,
Because You didn’t try.
Written by John H. Willingham
Started 1945, Completed 1995.
Dedicated to Vaunceil & Elmer L. Willingham
1912-2000 & 1905-1968
Editor’s Note: Photos featured with this article were sent to the NBN a few weeks before John’s passing.
Photo courtesy of Willingham’s Bar-B-Q
John with Ward “Crazy Legs” Lay, Roger Smith,
and Pig at Wards Cross Creek Ranch BBQ& Barn Dance.