Navy Veteran ‘Handsome Jim’ Willis Awarded Posthumous Degree

UM's oldest student veteran leaves legacy of inspiring others through commitment to learning

‘Handsome Jim’ Willis shows off the scooter that the nonprofit Volunteers for Veterans provided to help him get around the Ole Miss campus. Photo by Joshua McCoy/Department of Intercollegiate Athletics

OXFORD, Miss. – “Handsome Jim” Willis, a U.S. Navy veteran, was a beloved 77-year-old student at the University of Mississippi who always sported Ole Miss gear and wore a wide smile as he delivered jokes for everyone he encountered. 

Willis, who was ever the raconteur, was taking classes in Oxford toward his degree in sociology from Ramapo College, a small liberal arts institution in Mahwah, New Jersey, until his death in July. He had earned nearly 100 credits, and lacked only a few classes when he died.

It was determined that his work warranted a posthumous diploma, which Willis’ family received from Ramapo College Oct. 10 at a ceremony in the Lyceum. UM Provost Noel Wilkin, who conferred the degree to Willis’ family on behalf of Ramapo College, called the veteran’s thirst for knowledge an inspiration to all. 

“His commitment is a reminder that we should never stop learning and that the goal of education is a goal worthy of pursuit at any age,” Wilkin said. “He had a profound effect on our students and their commitment to pursue degrees.

“He was a special member of our community, and he will be remembered for years to come.”

The Jersey City, New Jersey, native, who moved to Mississippi three years ago, deeply loved Ole Miss and the friends he made here, said daughter-in-law April Rowland, of Oxford.

“He probably had never heard of Ole Miss until he got down here,” Rowland said. “Once he became a Rebel, he walked around with pride. He wore his Ole Miss gear everywhere and each year at Christmas, we knew we had to get him something with ‘Ole Miss’ written on it.”

Student veteran sashes lay over the scooter that belonged to U.S. Navy veteran ‘Handsome Jim’ Willis, who was posthumously awarded at diploma from Ramapo College in a ceremony at the University of Mississippi. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Once Willis started taking classes, he became a fixture at UM’s Veterans Resource Center in the E.F. Yerby Conference Center. He also met Andrew Newby, UM assistant director of veterans and military services. Newby loved Willis, whose presence always lifted spirits in the office when he came around.

“The dude was just hilarious,” Newby said.

Willis entered the U.S. Navy and served during the Vietnam War era. He was also a truck driver and Teamster, who joked about knowing where the famous Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared in 1975, was buried. 

He had also received his 25-year chip, a major accomplishment in the world of sobriety, and was in his 28th year of not drinking when he died. He was also active in the local recovery community and had drawn much support from it.

At Ole Miss, the aging vet had some trouble getting around and had to pause and rest about every 50 yards he walked. So, Newby worked with Joe Dickey, a member of the local nonprofit Volunteers for Veterans, to get him a scooter. The same day Newby asked for the scooter, it was delivered for Willis.

The Oxford Eagle wrote a feature story about the gift to Willis, which thrilled him. His daughter-in-law remembers him enjoying the spotlight.

“He was a character,” Rowland said. “When he got to the university and became a little bit of a fixture with the scooter; well, he just loved being famous.”

Willis also appeared in an Ole Miss athletics video on student veterans and talked about how he never felt out of place among all of the young people on campus. He spent hours in the VRC, where he bonded with student vets.

He was a very social, outgoing person by nature, and being around fellow students was important to Willis. 

He greeted all those he met with “The name’s James, but my friends call me ‘Handsome Jim.”

Jim Willis served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War era. Submitted photo

There were several different versions of the origins of his nickname. Looking at the photos of the dapper young man in his Navy uniform, one would think it was self-explanatory, but that wasn’t the case, his daughter-in-law explained. 

The joke Willis often told is that when he was drinking, everyone called him “ugly Jim” but once he became sober, he was “handsome” Jim. 

Another version of the story he told is that people called him Handsome Jim because of his attractive legs, Newby said, and the name just stuck.

The stories are just a sample of the brand of humor he took into each day, when he would pick up his scooter at the VRC to take to his classes. Most days, he’d show up well before he needed to so he had time to socialize.

Allen Frazier, a junior journalism major from St. Marys, Georgia, who is also a veteran, loved hanging out with Willis, who often talked fondly about the sunsets he used to see from the deck of a destroyer when he traveled along the coasts of France and Greece.

“He was definitely a talker,” Frazier said. “Every time I was in the VRC, he was hanging out and talking to all the veterans who came in. I got caught in a three-hour conversation with Jim once and I was laughing the whole time.”

Frazier loved hearing Willis’ stories about his time in the Navy, but also life in New Jersey and his times in New York City. He found Willis’ life inspiring.

“He was just really interesting, in that how somebody his age could go to school, and just sit in the VRC and hang out with us like it was nothing,” Frazier said. “We all just had an instantaneous connection with him.”

Since Willis completed his journey, his scooter has been turned back over to the veterans’ group to help someone else when the need arises, but he will forever be part of the Ole Miss community, Newby said.

“The diploma bookends the experience in Oxford for his family,” Newby said. “It shows that he had the ability to complete his degree, and if not for his untimely passing, he definitely would have.

“Jim will forever be a part of the Ole Miss family.”