By Steve Guntli
Rex Willis has had a long and varied life, but through all of the ups and downs, golf has been a constant pleasure. Now, on the eve of his 100th birthday, Birch Bay Village Golf Course is holding a special tournament in his honor.
The golf club will be holding the tournament on April 23, marking not only Willis’ centennial birthday but also the 50th anniversary of Birch Bay Village. Willis and his wife, Ellie, are regulars at the club, and even if they aren’t feeling up to playing, they regularly eat lunch and socialize with other members. Willis estimates he still gets in around 75 games a year, and plans to at least make the inaugural swing at the upcoming tournament.
“I’m still able to swing a club, so I’m going to give it my best shot,” Willis said.
Willis is a retired meteorologist, a career that’s taken him all over the world and put him in close contact with some fascinating moments in history. He retired to Birch Bay in 1979, and has been a resident of Birch Bay Village ever since.
“I can remember when there were only eight or nine houses in this neighborhood,” he said. “It’s sure grown.”
Willis was born in Sugar Lake, Missouri in 1916. He was always active in sports, playing baseball and hockey in his youth, but he didn’t get around to playing golf until he was 23. He fell in love, and the game became a constant presence throughout his life.
Willis joined the Navy in 1937, and was sent to learn meteorology and weather patterns in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1938. Lakehurst was the site of the infamous Hindenburg dirigible disaster, and Willis got some first-hand insight into how the infamous explosion that killed 36 people may have happened.
“When I was in Lakehurst, they would send helium blimps down the coast, and they’d always come back with bullet holes in them,” he said. “Just people along the coast taking potshots. Of course, helium isn’t flammable, but the Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen.”
Meteorology would serve as his career for most of the rest of his life. The Navy posted him in weather stations in Manila and China, where for a time he served as the only weather dispatcher for the Asiatic fleet.
He completed his service with the Navy and headed home on November 1, 1941, a mere month before the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor launched the U.S. into World War II.
Willis took a job with Trans World Airlines, the former air travel giant once owned by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. He would spend the next 37 years with the company, working in weather stations all around the world. He spent six years in Brazil, building a training center for meteorologists to help Brazilian airlines. From there, he went to Lisbon, Portugal for another three years, then Newfoundland for a year before finally heading back to Missouri. According to Willis, while there, he became Hughes’ favorite source for weather updates.
“He lived in the Caribbean most of the year, and of course he flew his own planes,” Willis said. “So about once a week I could expect a phone call at about 2 or 3 in the morning from Mr. Hughes asking for a forecast. I’d head down to the weather station, get the information and call him back. He was an odd man, but he did alright by me.”
By the time he retired in 1979, golf had become Willis’ full-time hobby, and he was happy to have the spare time to indulge. Now on the verge of turning 100, he’s eager for another chance to take a turn on the links, and excited to celebrate his birthday with friends and family.
As to the secret to his longevity? He has a few tips.
“People always ask me, ‘How have you lived so long and stayed in good health? What do the doctors say?’ And I always reply, ‘What doctors?’” he said. “I don’t keep any regular medical appointments. I just stay away from spicy foods, have no more than one alcoholic beverage each day, try to always get a good night’s sleep and do plenty of work out in my garden.”
The tournament will be held at the Birch Bay Village Golf Course at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 23. A birthday lunch for Willis will be held at 2 p.m. in the clubhouse, after which Willis will host a private party.