The last of the old guard of Kent County newspaper editors and reporters has passed on.
Joyce Jewell Willis died on October 13, 2020, at her home on the Chester River, surrounded by her family.
Known affectionately as “The General,” Joyce was 80. She was born in Lynch, MD, in 1940, the daughter of the late George Alan and Birdie Elizabeth Kendall Jewell. She was a 1958 graduate of Chestertown High School and attended Delaware Hospital School of Nursing in Wilmington, DE, before marrying William B. “Barney” Willis, III, on January 10, 1959.
Joyce came from a political family. Her father, “Chick,” ran the Jewell Brothers agriculture business in Lynch. Her “Uncle Johnny,” John Jewell, represented Kent County in the Maryland Senate and organized what today we call the Motor Vehicle Administration. Joyce loved to talk about the antics of “Daddy and Uncle Johnny,” but had a firm deal with her husband, Barney, that there would be no political offices held by members of their household.
Joyce was a journalist, serving as social editor of the Kent County News for 18 years. That is where I first encountered her in 1985. I was 21, a Washington College student newly recruited by then Editor and Publisher H. Hurtt Deringer to cover local government.
For the next year, I learned much from Joyce, who, in turn, introduced me to Kent County. She kept me busy attending church suppers, firehouse fundraisers, and getting to know local leaders.
The following spring, Joyce was ready for a change. With the encouragement of many, we hatched The Pilot. As managing editor, Joyce ran the newsroom and set the ethics – report it straight and no favors for the powerful.
Scott Bramble, The Pilot’s sports editor, shared his thoughts on Joyce’s passing.
“Jill and I are really sorry to hear about the General’s passing,” Bramble said. “She was a strong woman and a great mentor to me (and others) at a very impressionable time in my life. I will forever appreciate her friendship and belief in me.”
Joyce went on to publish the The Shore Digest, the monthly news magazine, from 1990-1998. It was Joyce Willis who broke the story of the ongoing oil leak that continues to pose a potential threat to Chestertown’s drinking water supply.
Joyce always credited her friend, Joan Ozman Horsey, for her job at the Kent County News and her lifelong vocation. Horsey remembered her friend fondly.
“Joyce and I were lifelong friends. We grew up together, raised our families at the same time and, in between the baby bottles and diapers, we both shared an interest in news reporting,” Horsey said. “Joyce fiercely defended her positions on various local topics, but always was willing to listen to the other side!”
Joyce loved to reminisce about the old days at the Kent County News. She started there when the paper was located with the Kent Printing Co., now the home of the Sultana Project. She had fond memories of Bill Usilton, the publisher and the last of local family ownership, and Harry Russell, the editor, another colorful news figure.
Joyce used to muse that “Mr. Bill ran the Kent County News and Harry Russell ran Kent County.”
She spoke fondly of Kent County News editor Sonny Usilton, Mr. Bill’s nephew, who died tragically young covering an accident on Rt. 20 at Brice’s Mill Road.
For all her attraction to the newspaper business, Joyce’s joy was her husband, Barney, and their four children– Barney, Jewell, Ann and Blair. Her first grandchild, Colin Kirby, son of Jewell and Brian Kirby, was nicknamed “The Pilot Baby,” as he arrived just when the paper was starting up.
Barney and Joyce were one of those natural, supportive couples who could read each other’s mind. They were familiar figures at the Chester River Yacht and Country Club. Joyce was the one golfing in bare feet. They were members of the Chestertown Elks Lodge #2474 and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Joyce was predeceased by her husband, and is survived by her two sons: William Barnaby “Barney” Willis, IV, and his wife, Melanie, of Charleston, SC, and Harry Blair Willis, Sr.; two daughters: Jewell Willis Kirby and her husband Brian and Anna Cook Willis Fernwalt and her husband Scott, all of Chestertown, MD; and two sisters: Elizabeth Bedwell of Denton, MD and Patricia Carter of Chestertown. Also, seven grandsons: Keith Sparks (Annie) and Tanner Sparks (Sarah), Kolyn and Kreigh Kirby, Harry B. II and Nicholas Willis, and William “Billy” B. Willis, V.; and two granddaughters: Nicole Elise Wallenfelsz (Nathan) and Christy Jane Willis Earls (Ryan) along with great grandchildren: Ainsley, Jackson, Layne, Saylor, Avery, Madelyn, Harper, and Jonathan. One brother Louis Alan Jewell and a step brother William K. Crow predeceased her.
A visitation will be held on Saturday October 17, 2020, from 5-7pm at Fellows, Helfenbein, and Newnam Funeral Home, 130 Speer Road, Chestertown, MD. Services will be held privately.