FRANK B. WILLIS
In the early spring of 1928 Senator Frank B. Willis declared that the approaching struggle in the Ohio primary election would not be a "powder-puff or pink tea" affair. At the time the senior senator from the Buckeye state was starting a vigorous campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. He entered the fray with an obvious enthusiasm, born of a deep love of politics and political battles. It had been thirty-two years since the crucial campaign of 1896, when he first worked for the Republican party, and Willis indicated he was going to utilize his long experience in the important presidential contest.
A survey of his political background reveals service in the state of Ohio as legislator and governor, in addition to federal service in the house of representatives and the senate. In short it was a crowded career, stretching back to his birth in 1871 in Delaware County, Ohio. The Willis family lived on a farm and had a considerable interest in the wool trade. The young boy attended a small country school where he was encouraged to go on for further academic work. As a result he taught school, chopped wood, and did odd jobs to finance his way through Ohio Northern University. Graduating in 1893, he remained with the university on its teaching staff. Although he was popular with the students, political interests soon cut into his teaching activities.
Following the 1896 election, Willis conducted a successful house to house campaign for a seat in the state legislature three years later. As a young Republican serving a traditionally Democratic district he soon created much favorable comment concerning his political future. One veteran statehouse observer wrote, "Although but 31 years of age he is already well-known throughout the state, and during the recent session of the ... General Assembly, the attention of the commonwealth and the country as well, was drawn to a tax bill bearing his name." The Willis law provided for a tax on corporations chartered by the state and foreign corporations operating in the state. It required the payment of sums equal to a fixed percentage of the capital stock of the various corporations.
In 1904 the young lawmaker tried to secure the Republican nomina- tion for a congressional seat, but his efforts were defeated and he returned to Ohio Northern. During this entire period, Willis had been studying law. He took the bar examination in 1906 and passed with the highest score. For the next four years his teaching was centered primarily in the field of law. College work could not hold Willis, however, and he reentered politics in 1910. After obtaining the party's blessing, he defeated his Democratic opponent in a struggle for the eighth congressional seat. In 1912 he was one of three Ohio Republican congressmen returned to their posts. Three years in Washington, where he proved himself in house debates, opened the way to the governorship.
Willis was nominated for the gubernatorial race under the terms of the new direct primary law. The first Republican so selected, he demonstrated his popularity with the party organization and the voters. Willis was a clever and challenging campaigner. A handsome man of imposing stature, he was at his best at informal party rallies, church socials, and rural get-togethers. He had a rich, booming voice which could be fashioned to meet any demand. Perhaps his greatest political asset was his uncanny ability to remember faces and names.
The progressive spirit which engulfed the American people during the early years of the twentieth century influenced the official Republican declarations during the 1914 campaign. The party favored increased compensation for injured workmen, and endorsed "the eight-hour system of daily labor wherever practicable." It also went on record as recognizing "the wider claims of the people upon their government for legislation to promote social justice," and pledged full cooperation "in the broader movement for human welfare." The campaign itself was a three-man race with the spotlight focused upon Governor James Cox and Willis. The Progressive candidate pursued a hopeless cause; Willis emerged the victor with a plurality of the votes cast.
In his inaugural address Governor Willis spoke at some length on the challenge of executive centralization to the proper functioning of free government. He concluded his plea for respect of the traditional "division of governmental functions" with the hopeful assertion, "It were folly to say this system is the acme of perfection, yet it is only the plain truth to state that according to the judgment of the intelligence of the world it is the best system yet devised by man."
The Willis administration, as it sought to protect the free system of government, stressed "economy and retrenchment." The governor provided a strong influence against needless and excessive legislative activity. Among the important measures approved by Willis were those revising the road laws of the state, reorganizing the state militia, re- organizing the civil service commission, providing elected rather than appointed local assessment officers, revamping the entire liquor licensing system, and regulating the appointment of county agricultural agents. Executive action was of necessity sharp and direct upon occasion. In January 1916 Willis ordered part of the militia to East Youngstown to quell violence that had broken out during a steel strike. When the Mexican border troubles took a turn for the worse, he mobilized the entire Ohio National Guard.
The 1916 gubernatorial contest was a comparatively quiet affair, overshadowed by the presidential race. Willis lost to former Governor Cox as both men stressed economy and tax reform. A third attempt to gain the governor's chair in 1918 likewise resulted in a defeat for Willis, with prohibition playing an important role in the decision. At this low point in his career he found an opening for a higher honor. Competing for Warren G. Harding's senate post, Willis overwhelmed his opponent, W. A. Julian, in 1920.
Frank Willis vaulted into national prominence with his smashing victory and his important role in the Harding campaign. As a senator he favored a high tariff and veterans' aid and opposed the League of Nations and any program of internationalism. After eight years in the senate his name was put forward for the presidency. He was a sincere, loyal Republican, linked with the conservative wing of the party. A powerful orator, he knew how to grasp the feelings of his audience and turn them to his advantage. Yet for all of his experience he had not gained the actual leadership of the party-a fact he recognized himself. His fighting campaign of 1928 never reached the point of decision, for Willis died dramatically in the midst of a political rally seeking to advance his leadership.
Senator Willis was survived by his wife and daughter Helen.