December 18, 2014

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Columbia Station couple remembered at vigil

Denise Chismar, a family friend of Jolene Willis, holds Nick Willis, 7, during a memorial service Wednesday for his parents at Columbia Station VFW Post 9340. The couple was killed in a motorcycle crash on Sunday, leaving behind five children. KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

Denise Chismar, a family friend of Jolene Willis, holds Nick Willis, 7, during a memorial service Wednesday for his parents at Columbia Station VFW Post 9340. The couple was killed in a motorcycle crash on Sunday, leaving behind five children. KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

COLUMBIA STATION — Motorcycle crash victims Jolene and Robert Willis Jr. died doing what they loved.

Friends and family of the Willises at a Wednesday memorial said the couple loved to ride and were frequently on the go.

“I always referred to them as a couple of matches,” said Robert Willis Sr., father of Robert Willis. “They were lit and they burned all day long, 24 hours a day. They just kept going. They just never ran out of energy.”

The Willises died about 5:45 p.m. Sunday when they struck a Chevrolet Equinox head-on at a sharp curve in front of 36781 Grafton Road, about a half-mile north of Mennell Road. The three occupants of the Equinox were not seriously injured.

Police said Robert Willis rode left of center. The cause of the crash remains under investigation.

The charter signs at the Columbia Station Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9340 were draped in black in memory of Robert and Jolene Willis.

The charter signs at the Columbia Station Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9340 were draped in black in memory of Robert and Jolene Willis.

About 150 people gathered at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9340, 25742 Royalton Road, where Robert Willis Jr., was senior vice commander. The younger Willis was a Marine master sergeant with the Reserve 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment in Brook Park.

The 37-year-old joined the Marines in 1994 and was planning to retire in June, according to his father, a retired Marine and Vietnam War combat veteran. The younger Willis was nicknamed “Spaz” for his hyperactive personality.

Willis was a Bronze Star winner and infantry unit leader who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, according to Marc Chismar, a retired Marine who served with Willis in Iraq. Chismar said Willis was a “consummate professional” as a soldier.

“He was one hell of a leader,” Chismar said. “Lots of people were willing to follow him.”

Jolene Willis, 37, was a member of the post auxiliary and sometimes tended bar there, according to Edward Stephan, post chaplain. The couple is survived by five children: Patrick, 18; Alissa, 17; Ashley, 12; Nick, 7; and Connell, 5.

Marine Staff Sgt. Lopaz Swain, who served with Willis at Brook Park, said Jolene Willis was a loving mother and supportive wife. Swain said being a Marine’s wife is always difficult when the husband is serving in a war. “She did it pretty well,” Swain said.

A flag was raised at Columbia Station VFW Post 9340 in honor of Master Sgt. Robert Willis and his wife Jolene.

A flag was raised at Columbia Station VFW Post 9340 in honor of Master Sgt. Robert Willis and his wife Jolene.

Jolene and Robert Willis were both from southern California and moved to Columbia Station in 2011 when he was assigned to the Brook Park base. Post members said the Willises quickly made friends due to their outgoing personalities, but Robert Willis was always serious about ensuring that post events were run professionally.

Many at the memorial were motorcyclists, including about a dozen members of the Pagans Motorcycle Club. Some crowd members hugged and cried during the memorial, which included a three-volley rifle salute, the playing of taps and the lowering of the flag.

The Willis children attended the memorial. They will be moving to Ponder, Texas, about 40 miles outside of Dallas, to live with Lori Busch, Jolene Willis’ sister, according to Robert Willis Sr.

He said his son had been planning to move the family to Texas after retiring from the Marines.

“They’ve never had a permanent home,” Willis said of his grandchildren. “Hopefully, they can get it now.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.

Victims Fund

A fund has been established for the five children of fatal crash victims Jolene and Robert Willis. Donations can be made at FirstMerit Bank, 25742 Royalton Road, Columbia Station. For more information, call (440) 236-3400.