Willie Willey, the Spokane folk hero who spurned convention and clothes, was honored Thursday in the most conventional of ceremonies.
Civic leaders unveiled a plaque for Willey on Riverfront Park’s Canada Island.
Those who gathered were a respectable and fully clothed group of Spokane boosters. In other words, they represented everything Willey shunned.
“I am back in Spokane because this place is no worse than any other place,” Willey told reporters in 1951, after 10 years of travels. “No matter where I go, the cops give me a rough time.”
In Chicago, they threw him in jail for wearing only shorts. In Portland, it was for trying to convince a young woman to disrobe. In Spokane, Willey repeatedly was called before judges for trespassing on a farm he lost in a 1921 court decision.
Willey wasn’t the center of attention Thursday, but a sidebar in a ceremony honoring seven early Spokane Christians whose nearest connection to “Nature Boy” Willey is that they all are dead. Willey often told reporters that he stripped to his shorts in 1917 after an argument with church leaders.
The Christians got a plaque, too, guiding visitors to Inspiration Point, where they can read all about Spokane Indian Chief Garry and six white missionaries.
The Willey plaque on the park’s Hamilton bridge tells no story. Instead, it draws attention to Willie Willey Rock, a boulder mid-stream off Canada Island.
“Willie was a rock,” said Michael Maras, who asked the park board in 1977 to name the truck-sized rock for the man who wore only shorts and made pets of wild animals.
At first the board rejected the idea.
“I wasn’t impressed” with Willey when he was alive, board member Wayne Guthrie said during the debate. “And I’m not impressed now.”
Two months later, with Guthrie absent, the board reversed its decision on the condition that Maras provide a plaque. Maras’ wife died in 1978, “and I put my Willie Willey stuff away,” said Maras, 68, who did not attend the ceremony.
The rock would have remained unmarked if not for former Spokane Mayor Neal Fosseen. A longtime parks advocate, Fosseen purchased Willey’s plaque, and the one for the Christians, as well.
“People kind of laughed at him during his lifetime,” Fosseen said. “Then, after he was gone, they said ‘Gee, he’s a nice fellow. It’s too bad not to have him around anymore.”’
Willey has gotten so much publicity since his death, it’s almost as if he were still around. His press is getting better, too.
Before death, he was portrayed as a curiosity, a nonconformist or a bum.
But 400 people attended his funeral in 1956, and the legend of Willie Willey as a disciple of simplicity - Spokane’s own Henry Thoreau - was born.
Spokane businesses celebrated Willie Willey Day on Feb. 22, 1991, by asking folks to “dress down.” Dozens of readers wrote or called The Spokesman-Review in 1993, when a writer asked if anyone remembered Willey.
No one is a bigger fan than Maras. The Spokane Valley resident said he’s heard stories of Willey lifting cars while their owners changed flat tires and talking despondent businessmen out of jumping off the Monroe Street Bridge.
“Anything that grew out of the ground, he could make food out of it,” said Maras. “The guy had no sin in him.”
A plaque is not nearly enough recognition for Willey, said Maras.
“I’d like to see a movie made about this man.”
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