Updated: November 20, 2011 8:43AM
When Alan Guthrie Willis heard classical music, he could often recall the composer and title and even the catalog number for each particular piece.
Known for his superb memory, Mr. Willis was a reference librarian beloved by patrons as a trusted and knowledgeable source for information.
He served at the Naperville Public Library for 20 years as the go-to expert on music, history, genealogy and law.
“He was very helpful,” said Sue Prindiville, manager at Naperville’s Nichols Library. “He started out as a social worker and I don’t think he ever lost that side of himself. He was always so kind and caring and willing to help.”
Mr. Willis died Oct. 1 at his Bolingbrook home after a three-year battle with cancer. He was 63.
Mr. Willis grew up around St. Louis, Mo., and studied history at Washington University. He obtained a master’s degree in American history from the State University of New York and another master’s degree in library science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
After a brief stint as a welfare case worker, he moved to the Chicago area and worked as a librarian for nearly 10 years in Bolingbrook, followed by a similar position at North Central College’s Oesterle Library in Naperville. He eventually ended up at the Nichols Library in Naperville — where he met his wife, a fellow employee at the time — and remained there until retirement. He also co-authored the book American Suburbs: Rating Guide and Fact Book in the early 1990s.
Inquisitive by nature, Mr. Willis had rather eclectic taste. He collected 78 rpm records — especially those featuring African-American jazz bands of the 1930s — baseball cards, stamps and classic films. He was an avid birder, researched the history of geography and played the hammered dulcimer, a string instrument that is struck with small hammers. (He would occasionally perform this music dressed in period clothing while volunteering at the Naper Settlement, an outdoor history museum in Naperville.)
“He was just a really unique individual,” said Irene Lamb O’Neill. “He was like a free spirit — someone who was extremely knowledgeable about a lot of different topics.”
O’Neill first met Mr. Willis after he helped her find a book, Driving Your Own Karma: Swami Beyondananda’s Tour Guide to Enlightenment. He struck up a conversation about the text, and they remained friends for many years.
“He was someone who just reached out to people,” she said. “He had this childlike awe and wonder about him. He loved to joke around and have fun.”
Mr. Willis was very active in the DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lisle. He was a member of the Brotherhood Men’s Ministry and president of both the Chancel Choir and Hospitality Ministry.
He sang solos from time to time, performing front and center as the only Caucasian in a mostly African-American group.
One solo in particular, “Jesus, you brought me all the way” took on special meaning for him after he was diagnosed with cancer.
“You could see it in his singing and the way he walked, he was just so grateful for life,” said Marketo Griffin, director of the a cappella ensemble at the church.
Mr. Willis was also a former precinct captain in Bolingbrook and volunteered to help the homeless with DuPage PADS in Wheaton. One of his proudest accomplishments was working with community leaders in Bolingbrook to mark the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“He was a really good man,” said his wife, Lakshmi Kapoor Willis. “His biggest regret was that he couldn’t stay longer and do more service.”
Aside from his wife, he is survived by a stepson, Hareesh Kapoor, and brothers Wayne and Geoffrey Willis.
Services have been held.