Following a custom of many years, the Kentucky State Historical Society takes pleasure in presenting to the citizens of this Commonwealth a brief biographical sketch of the recently inaugurated Chief Executive of Kentucky, Governor Simon S. Willis of Ashland, Boyd County, who by virtue of his office has become President ex-officio of the Society.
Governor Willis was born December 1, 1879 near Aid Township, in Lawrence County, Ohio, one of the last of an old fashioned family of nine children. His parents were John H. and Abigail Slavens Willis. Both native of Ohio, the father having been born at Cross Roads, Jackson County, and the mother at Franklin Furnace in Scioto County. The early American forebears of Governor Willis were residents of Virginia where a number of them served during the Revolutionary War in General Washington's Continental Army. The Governor's grandfather William Willis was born in Greenbrier County, Virginia, in 1800 but during late middle life removed to Ohio where he died in 1885. During the Civil War he served as captain of Company Co of the Fifth West Virginia Infantry, in which his son John H. Willis, the of the governor was a corporal. His commanding officer was General Phil Sheridan. John H. Willis was one of the pioneer iron furnace men of Ohio where he was widely known because of his eminence in the charcoal-iron industry.
Governor Willis obtained the early part of his elementary education in the public schools of Lawrence County, Ohio. When he was about ten years old he removed with his father and mother from Ohio to South Portsmouth, a village then known as Springville on the south shore of the Ohio river in Greenup County Kentucky. He completed the "grades" and later took a teacher's course in the local private school of Professor Wade. Here his formal education ended. He did not go to college, but attended the normal school; took the examination, and became a school teacher. Before he was twenty he was named the principal of Springville graded school. Soon finding he possessed nor real desire to become a professional pedagogue, he devoted the greater part of his out-of -school hours during the three years he was engaged as a teacher in studying law with Judge J. B. Bennett and took a special course of law und William D. Corn. Success crowned his efforts and on November 11, 1901, he was admitted to practice before the Kentucky Bar. During this perriod he did some reporting for the old Portsmouth, Ohio, Tribune and contributed to a few Republican editorials for the Greenup County Gazette.
In January 1902 Simon S. Willis-then but a stripling youth of twenty-two stepped out into the world to make his own way in his chosen profession. He opened a law office in Ashland, with which progressive community he has ever since been closely identified as an outstanding, attorney, judge and citizen. later he became associated with the legal firm of Hager and Stewart. In 1905 he first essayed political office as the Republican candidate for City Attorney of Ashland and was defeated. Thirteen years later-in 1918-when he was thirty-nine years old he was elected for a four-year term as the City Solicitor of the city of Ashland. In 1922 he returned to the practice of law and rapidly rose in popular and professional esteem.
On January 1, 1928 Simon S. Willis took his seat on the bench of the Court of Appeals of Kentucky as the appointee of Republican Governor Flem D. Sampson, whose elevation to the office of Chief Executive by the electorate of Kentucky had created the vacancy. In the autumn of 1928,, an outstanding and widely known Eastern Kentucky Republican, he was elected to fill the four-year unexpired term of Judge Sampson. At the end of this period Judge Willis was a candidate for re-election to the Court of Appeals of Kentucky and was defeated by Judge Alex Ratliff, a Democrat, of Pikesville in the Roosevelt landslide of 1932.
Once again he returned to his private law practice in Ashland, matured by his five years of experience as a member of the Kentucky's Court of last resort. But this time be brought back to his legal work a well founded reputation as a learned and successful judge. New and important clients were attracted to him and within a very short time he became one of the leading, if not the outstanding lawyer of northeastern Kentucky. Such was the position in private life that Simon S. Willis occupied in the mid-summer of 1943 when at the behest of many friends he became the Republican candidate for Governor of Kentucky to which office he was elected on November 2, by a majority in excess of 8,600 votes over the Hon. J. Lyter Donaldson of Carrollton, Kentucky. Governor Willis is the sixth Republican to fill the office of the Governor of Kentucky.
On April 14, 1920, Simon S. Willis was married to Miss Ida Lee Millis, a daughter of Charles L. and Sarah S. (Ross) Millis of Catlettsburg, Kentucky. Governor and Mrs. Willis have one daughter, Sarah Leslie, who was born in Ashland, Kentucky July 16, 1922 where she attended the public schools, later selecting Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where she is now a senior. Mr. and Mrs. Willis are both Methodists.
Governor Willis is a Knight Templar and Shriner of the Masonic fraternity and a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. He is also a member of the Boyd County, Kentucky State and American Bar Associations and was a member of the State Board of bar Examiners for five years. He is an honorary member of the Ashland Rotary Club. During his long residence in northeastern Kentucky he has served in many capacities in the public interest not the least of which has been his association as appeal agent in this war, as in the war of 1917-18, for the Selective Service Board of Boyd County, Kentucky