John Willingham, Barbecue Maven and All-Around Achiever, Dies at 80

Coloful figure and Renaissance man had looked forward to another triumph at this year's Festival.

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John Willingham, 1932-2013
  • John Willingham, 1932-2013
John Willingham, a man who made a name for himself in many worlds and will be mourned by a broad cross-section of people in Memphis and Shelby County, died Wednesday evening of complications from heart disease at St. Francis Hospital, where he was under treatment.

Willingham, who would have been 81 on Sunday, the day after the conclusion of this year’s Barbecue Festival, had looked forward to the event this year with special anticipation. A two-time Grand Champion of the Festival and winner over the years in several event categories, he had argued for years that competitors should be allowed to vend their products at the Festival and had finally convinced the sponsors to allow it.

“Daddy told us a year ago he thought that this year ‘Karla and Clay’ would carry the load,” said Karla Templeton, one of three Willingham daughters. And she vowed that she and her husband Clay would indeed carry forward and try to win the championship in her father’s honor.

Besides Templeton, Willingham leaves his wife Marge, two other daughters, Kristi Goldsmith and Kara Wilbanks, and six grandchildren,

“And there were many others who called him ‘Daddy’ just out of love and respect,” said Templeton.

Willingham, a former Shelby County Commissioner, had been a prominent figure in local politics for decades. He made several runs for both city and county Mayor and was an influence in the careers of numerous office-holders.

An inventor, he held several patents, and he was a high official of the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Nixon administration. The versatile Willingham also played professional baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

Willingham was perhaps best known, however, as a barbecue maven, who owned several restaurants and packaged and sold a variety of products related to the art of barbecue.

No funeral arrangements have yet been announced.

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