In Memory of Chuck Willis

Major contributor to this blog, and my dear friend Chuck Willis, died suddenly on Tuesday, Oct 30, 2012 in Wichita, Kansas.

Chuck has contributed 54 blog entries during his years of writing for Peak Oil Blues.  He was working on another one right before he died.  His son will finish it and forward it to me.

Here is my tribute to him.

Early Years


In 1960 – 1965, Chuck received his B.S. in both Math and Physics at The University of Texas at Austin.

Chuck spent his professional career doing many things.

Early Work in Computers

He worked on the earliest prototypes of computers.  In 2008, he wrote to me about it:

I was one of 1900 who turned the world upside down 43 years ago. I went to work for IBM straight out of college in their Advanced Systems Development labs in the mountains outside of San Jose California.  I was part of the team that  developed the System 360 computer, the foundation of nearly every computer since. Before the 360, no computer could talk to another computer. Every time a new model computer came out, all of the programming had to be re-written before it could be used.  A computer then could only run one program at a time. The 360 design changed all that. This is why your PC is called an IBM compatible PC, it is compatible to the old 360 design, which is at the heart of every computer system since (except Univac/Unisys and Apple MAC, which are built on a different design).

My job was to design a new data access method for Disc called BDAM. It was very fast, but fragmented the disc drive (sound familiar?), and fell out of favor in the mainframe world in the mid 70s, except for check processing, where it is still at the core. I designed and developed that access method with 3 other guys, 2 in San Jose and one in White Plains, NY. If you have a hard drive on your PC, a variant of that access method is storing your information right now. As such, I have had a very unique view of the beginnings of the information age.

When I joined IBM, the computer industry was at the stage of where aviation was in 1912. With the 360, we took it to where aviation was in 1940.  I am seriously thinking of writing a book about that era.

To our great loss, he never did write that book, to my knowledge.

Chuck never bragged about his past.  He just stated it, as a fact. And when he wrote to me, I always learned something new and interesting:

The three most costly projects in the decade of the 1960s were NASA’s race to the moon, the IBM 360, and a distant third, the interstate highway system. The race to the moon would not have been possible were it not for the 360 that ran the Apollo missions.

Navy Years

When I went into the NAVY, I remained on the IBM payroll and they paid the difference between my NAVY salary and my IBM salary, in case there were problems that arose that the other 3 guys couldn’t handle.

You got that?  IBM kept him on the payroll, despite his being in the Navy, because they needed him “just in case.”

Fighter Pilot and Flying Stories

He was a fighter pilot in the Navy, and used to remind me of the old chestnut: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”

He used flying stories to encourage and inspire his readers. Here is a story from his early flying days, in response to a very intimate and revealing post I wrote, that I was unsure about, a post that explained my long absence in my contributing to this blog:

When I was learning to fly, on my second solo, my instructor sent me out to the practice area about 15 miles from the airport to do the “stall series”, one of my least favorite activities in a plane(where you make it quit flying).  I was immediately surprised by the steep angle it took to stall the plane with only one aboard.  I completed the power off stalls with no big problems.  I started the full power stalls from about 3500 feet above the ground.

On the first stall, I must have gotten sloppy with the rudder, and when it stalled it did something I totally didn’t expect, the plane dropped instantly into a spin, not just a spin but an upside down spin.  For an experienced pilot with proper training, spins are a non problem, but years before I took my training, spin recovery had been removed from the training requirements because so many were killing themselves practicing it.

Everything I tried to recover just made it worse.  In desperation, I turned loose of all the controls and to my utter joy the plane righted itself into a spiral dive, which I could recover from, and I recovered about 500 ft above the ground.  I climbed up to 3000 feet, trimmed the plane for level flight, and was shaking like a leaf in a windstorm.  I really didn’t know if I was going to be able to land the plane at the airport as all my confidence in my training and abilities was totally gone.

I got back to the airport and somehow got it on the ground.  I was sure I would never try to fly an airplane again, I didn’t think I had what it took.  When I went back in the hanger, my instructor asked me what had happened as I was still shaking and pale as a ghost.  I told him I was throwing in the towel, it was more than I could do.  He would hear nothing of it, took the keys from me and marched me back to the plane.  We took off and flew back to the practice area, and he told me we were going to de-mystify the terror of the spin.  I was protesting loudly, but he proceeded to spin the plane and have me follow his movements with the controls.  Then we climbed back up, and he spun the plane and had me recover it.  We did that 5 more times, then went back to the airport.

I still had apprehension on my next solo, but I also had the self confidence that hey I’ve done this before and now have the experience to do it again and recover if necessary.  Over the years I have been so thankful that my instructor encouraged me to face my fears head on, get back in the saddle, and go further down the path of life.  I have had to do that many times in my professional and personal life.  Your writing is a perfect example of that.  You have returned to the saddle with a firm idea that hey, I can conquer this, and make a great contribution, not only to others, but myself.

He was not a person prone to hyperbole.  Instead, he delivered his terrifying messages about what was to come calmly and evenly, in his slow Texan drawl.  He had many of the features others would call a “pilot persona.” While there is a Hollywood lore about fighter pilots having the”right stuff,” (Wolfe, 1980) possessing extreme levels of confidence, assertiveness, and competitiveness, the true psychological profile is more complex. What appears to be true is that both male and female combat pilots are considerably less neurotic and more conscientious than others.

Conscientiousness – (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless). A tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement; planned rather than spontaneous behavior; organized, and dependable.

Low Neuroticism – individuals who score low in neuroticism are less easily upset and are less emotionally reactive. They tend to be calm, emotionally stable, and free from persistent negative feelings.

Career Challenges as Teaching Tales

At the end of 2010, when my husband was at a low point, Chuck sent me his own personal story about his early career life, to inspire my husband to “hang in there,” when dealing with unreasonable bosses. He also sent my husband a key chain with a logo my husband still has “(Expect the Best and Deliver What You Promise)”.  Here is Chuck’s story to Dan:

Chuck started working at the Fourth National Bank and Trust, one of the oldest banks in Kansas, in the fall of 1980.  He worked for a department with a turnover rate running about 70-75% a year, a staff of 26 under him, and a completely incompetent Department Manager. In addition, each terminal was on a Lazy Susan type of turntable between cubicles and shared by two programmers, so only one person could work at a time.

His boss would regularly promise a program or enhancement to a system to others in the company, and commit to a delivery date without a clue about what it would take or what work it would interrupt, to accomplish it.

Then, he’d ask Chuck to make sure it got done.

The 26 employees were upset with all the work coming down the pipeline without a break and had to work 60-70 hour weeks at lower pay than what the aircraft companies in the area normally paid. Chuck began working with his team, asking them for ideas to improve their situation, and blind copying them on many of the memos he was sending to his boss requesting changes. They began to accept that he was on “their side” and started drastically increasing productivity. The turnover rate dropped from 70-75% to about 20% in one year, under his leadership.

Two years later, Chuck was asked by his boss’s superior to run a conversion program from DOS to MVS, a job that had thousands of programs, all which had to be re-written to run under MVS, and at the same time keep up the bank’s normal maintenance of daily operations and changes. He would be given no additional personnel.

This was the largest project he was ever to undertake in his professional career, and agreed to it only if he could set the timelines and control the entire project.  His bosses’ superior agreed, promising rich financial rewards upon its success.   Over the next 16 months he and his staff put in nearly 50 man years of work to get us converted.  He personally put in over 2100 hours of overtime above normal work hours, while several of his staff put in over 2500 hours of overtime.

I used the old Navy Plan of the Day format for my daily reporting to management.  Every morning at 8:30am I met for 30-45 minutes with my staff managers, IBM, and computer operations, discussing current problems and solutions, and what our goal was by the end of the day.

The year 1983 was a blur, more intense than anything I had ever done.  We ran ourselves crazy trying to tame this elephant.  How Linda endured my preoccupation, late hours, short temper, and total physical exhaustion is beyond me.  No member of my staff was immune.  I sent out regular letters to the spouses of my staff trying to explain as best I could the magnitude of what we were doing and how much I appreciated their understanding and support.  Tempers were on a short fuse for everybody.

The conversion was a strictly one-way proposition, once we switched over, there was no going back to the old systems, it had to work.  It was a very successful conversion. IBM indicated it was the smoothest they had ever seen. We had converted over 4000 programs and tens of thousands of files, while keeping the everyday business running.

His higher-level superior died suddenly at the age of 44, and the incompetent one took over.  Upon completion, this man never sent as much as a one line memo congratulating the staff on this extraordinary achievement.  In addition, no one got even a penny for their efforts, including Chuck.  He found out later that his boss took all the credit for the success of the project, and received large bonus payments at year end.

He wanted my husband to know that he had been where he was, and that if my husband kept putting one foot in front of the other, he would eventulaly get his bearings back.  Chuck was offered a job he loved, and stayed in for 30 years shortly after this.

Here is the part of the story that I really loved:

I had become mentally and physically exhausted by March of 1984.  Linda and I went over to Riverside park one warm afternoon to talk about what we could do to restore me and us together, something we have done frequently.  One thing we fell back to was that we had really enjoyed the camping experience at the World’s Fair, even with all the inconveniences.  We brainstormed about what we could do to recapture some of that freedom, and hit on the idea of acquiring an old VW camper van, which would be about 2 steps up from tent camping.

I started looking around in the classified ads at the library for all the area newspapers.  One showed up in the Kansas City newspaper for a 1973 model van for $1200, which I could borrow, and using the tax refund we had just obtained.  We drove up to Kansas City on a Saturday and took it for a test drive, and found it to be in pretty good condition, but it was a bright orange color.  We closed the deal and I drove the beast back to Wichita with Linda following me.  We promptly named it the “Great Pumpkin” from an annual cartoon series in the Charlie Brown cartoons around Halloween.

Linda and I decided that our first outing in the Great Pumpkin should be back to Oshkosh, so she could enjoy the serenity of Partridge Lake.  Being that the trip would be the first long trip in the Great Pumpkin, we weren’t sure of what adventures would lie ahead of us.  It didn’t take long for the “adventures” to start.  When we went out to leave, the VW refused to turn over to start.  We pushed it down the hill to get rolling and popped the clutch to start it and returned dejected back to Wichita.  I got up early next morning and did some trouble shooting, and was able to jury rig it to start.  I went back in and announced to everybody that we were off again, and we loaded up for the second try.  This time it behaved for the most part, except about every 3rd time I tried to start it, I would have to crawl underneath and jumper from the battery to the starter solenoid.  We made it to Partridge Lake.  It was worth it.  I taught  We gradually adjusted to camper living, and found it to be very relaxing.  On the way back we discovered one of the drawbacks to the bright orange color, it attracted bees like crazy.   Over the next 18 years we owned the VW, we constantly worked on it to improve its usefulness.

The three worst years I had at work, were years I would get the greasy hands and work like crazy on that van ( I souped it up with a Corvair engine and gearbox that I rebuilt from the ground up – first and only engine I have ever rebuilt).  We enjoyed that van for close to 20 years before we sold it.  Something good can come out of working out your frustrations, even if you have to learn by trial and error.

At other times I have painted pictures, taken up the banjo (absolutely no musical talent, but enjoyed taking lessons and learning to plink and plunk), so encourage Dan to find a physical creative outlet.  Currently Linda and I carve ships (the Edmund Fitzgerald) and sell to the Great Lakes Shipwreck museum near Whitefish Bay, MI, something we have been doing for about 12 years.  Carve all winter, paint in the spring, sell in the spring summerand fall.  We have created close to 1000 of the small ships and around 220 of the large ones.


Contingency Planner for B of A

Next, he went to work for Bank of America, a job that he loved, and retired after 30 years as a Vice President and Senior Contingency Specialist.  His nickname there was “Doctor Doom,” because his work depended on his ability to understand how complex systems interrelate, and to predict the trajectory of how they break down and how to mitigate this impact. The largest bank in the USA, and the 10th largest in the world can hire the best and the brightest to do this work.  Chuck was one of them.  It was in this capacity that he learned about Peak Oil.

Storm Spotter for Tornadoes

After he retired, he continued his work at a trained volunteer of storm spotters, spending 27 years at it, intentionally putting himself in harm’s way, but no doubt saving thousands of lives.  Meteorologists use radar to forecast where tornadoes might form. But, the radar can’t detect actual tornadoes. People like Chuck are needed to do that.

Storm spotters are different that storm chasers. Spotters work in organized networks to observe and confirm severe weather events for the NWS and for local emergency managers.

I talked to a meteoroligist here last week, and she said the severe storms forecast center in Oklahoma is very apprehensive about the tornado season from late March through mid June.  I’ve been going out into the western part of the county from Wichita two going up and down roads with a map noting safe observation points and possible places with storm shelters, as well as making sure there are no dead communication areas with my equipment for when the weather bureau sends us spotters out into the field.  Our county is about 40 miles by 30 miles so we have a lot of territory to cover.

[I am ] Working on getting all my equipment ready for the upcoming FEMA exercise on April 7-8, had to design and currently building out a new power supply for my mobile FM transmitter that I will have to use at the hospital I’m assigned to as their equipment broke down, and so I will have to use mine instead.   Having to learn some new technology, but that is a good thing, got to keep the little grey cells humming!!


Chuck was also an active humanitarian and did many acts of charity.  This excerpt gives you a sense for his empathy, compassion, humanitarianism, and vision.

Tonight our small bible study and discussion group has our monthly duty of serving the evening meal at the Union Rescue Mission.  Linda and I worked that last month.  It was sobering.  We had prepared ourselves for the burned out druggies and alcoholics, but what caught us off guard was that more than half of the 230 people we served that evening were clean cut, well dressed (compared to most homeless folks) and polite young- to middle-aged individuals, the Joe Average you pass on the street.  You could look into their eyes and just see the hurt and bewilderment at how they went from a functioning part of society to unemployed homeless, being fed by strangers.  The Union Rescue Mission purchased a nursing home on the outskirts of the city that was closed by the state, and uses it to provide two meals a day and house the folks for sleeping at night on rubber mats.  It really drove home the point of how bad the economy has really become.  When you see true hard core hunger that close up and close to home, it really shakes you to the core over what is coming.

I talked to him about how he saw the future, and how I could be more useful to people who read me.

One of my major concerns that is starting to be formulated in my mind, is that the peak oil onset may not allow time for an orderly transition to a downsized lifestyle. Political action to do something on a large scale is just not going to happen, for one thing, because of limited tax revenues. I’m beginning to feel like we will be thrust suddenly into a reduced lifestyle in the next couple of years, sort of being laid off from the energy society. Most people will not have the time or inclination to research all the ramifications this has for them personally, and how to develop a survival mindset, when the politcal correctness crowd has given the word “survival” such a negative connotation. They will however read the “Dear Abby of Peak Oil” perhaps.

Deep Religious Faith

Chuck was a man of profound religious faith, that was a guiding force in his life.  It was woven into the very fabric of his being, not a coat he tried on one day a week.  His faith was unshakable and provided him with enormous personal comfort.

Support and Encouragement

I will leave you with one final quote for now.  As I’ve already mentioned, 2011 was a very difficult year for me.  My Mother died, a foster child got into a car accident, my husband was depressed over a difficult employment situation, and several other personal trials drove me to write to Chuck for support and guidance.  He wrote the following back in his email:

You sound like you have the February blues. When you get up in the morning, look to the east.  Somewhere in the trees and clouds you will find the sun. No matter what happens with the economy, energy or environment, the sun will be there, each and every day. You and Dan have had everything and the kitchen sink thrown at you the last 60 days. It has got to be overwhelming.  When I have more crap than any individual person should endure, I remember Elton John’s song, “I’m Still Standing.”  For some reason it always encourages me to take another step.

Wish I had some profound words of wisdom to offer, but that is the best I can come up with.

I will miss those words of  encouragement.  Thank you, Chuck, for your tremendous contribution to this blog and my life.

I will forward any messagesof gratitude or condolences left in the comments section of this post to his wife, Linda.

If you’d like to take a look at the 54 (soon to be 55) articles he’s contributed gratis over the years, you can find all of them at The Best of POB under the heading “Chuck Willis.”  I will also be posting more of his writings, some I found in my inbox recently.

About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.

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