Larry Willis’s colleagues liked to joke that he kept a copy of the Railway Labor Act, passed a few years before the Great Depression, under his pillow.
“He loved the wonk,” said his wife, Amy York. “He could explain things in a way that normal people could understand.”
Willis spent decades immersed in the arcane details of transportation law, pressing for workers’ rights during moments of national crisis, from the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to the coronavirus pandemic, and the quiet times in between.
He sought progress as a congressional staffer and eventually as president of a labor federation representing 33 unions and millions of workers, the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, bringing what colleagues said was an intense curiosity and decency to a mission rooted in his sense of justice and Jewish faith.
That drive also defined his personal pursuits, including his passion for biking, his family and friends said. On Monday, those who loved him were struggling to process a heartbreaking loss.
Willis was critically injured Nov. 21 in what U.S. Park Police said was “a crash involving a motor vehicle and a bicycle” near the MacArthur Boulevard entrance to Great Falls Park in Maryland. Willis’s family said it appeared to be a terrible accident at a blind spot. Willis, who lived in Chevy Chase, Md., died Sunday. He was 53.
“He liked to be in constant motion,” York said. “He was doing something he really loved when he died. He really did love biking.”
Willis and York met at a parade in Iowa when he was 21 and she was 20. He was charming, and “his first words to me were, ‘Would you like a Dave Nagle for Congress sticker?’ ” — even though she had worked for the Iowa Democratic representative’s campaign the previous year. Their first date was five days later.
Now their daughter, Samantha, 19, is about to declare a major in architecture. Willis had so wanted Samantha to try out for the swim team, at not quite 6 years old, that he promised her anything in the world. She collapsed in his arms after practice, sobbing in exhaustion, and went big on her wish, telling him: “I want to swim with dolphins.”
Willis, who saved money for experiences and not things, made it happen.
“There was just this energy about him, kind of an underlying energy. It was always there. He was so excited with you whenever you got good news, but also sad with you when you didn’t,” said York, who is executive director of the Eldercare Workforce Alliance.
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Those with whom Willis worked and mentored in the labor movement said his swift disappearance from their lives was difficult to fathom.
“For somebody who was living so big and so passionately to go so quickly and unexpectedly has been really hard,” said Elizabeth Baker, a colleague Willis recruited from Capitol