The Interesting Life of J. Willis Johnson, III
SAN ANGELO, TX — J. Willis Johnson had an office in the top floor of the same building San Angelo LIVE! was for over three years. “Old money,” someone said. He was the progeny of San Angelo’s early history, and the rumor was, he was rich. Very rich.
Johnson III, born Oct. 3, 1930, died Jan. 3. He was 87.
Johnson III benefitted from the inheritance of J. Willis Johnson, Sr.’s massive land holdings in Tom Green County. The Handbook of Texas Online said Johnson III’s grandfather owned more land in the county than anyone else when he died in 1923. The two ranches are remnants of their former existences, the Door Key Ranch (around Door Key Rd. in Christoval), and the Crow’s Nest Ranch off U.S. 277 towards Bronte north of San Angelo. In all, it was 90,000 acres.
That inheritance was passed down to three heirs in equal parts, Johnson’s two daughters and his only son. It was old man Johnson’s son, J. Willis Johnson, Jr., known as “Jake,” who assumed the responsibilities of management of the vast acreages of land. Then Jake discovered oil.
By the time Jake died in 1955, he had grown the estate into an inheritance of 10s of millions with recurring revenue from oil and gas leases.
Above: Jake Johnson (left) and J. Willis Johnson, Sr. (right)
According to a journalist at Forbes, William Barrett, who profiled Johnson III in 1990, Johnson III, known as Willis, learned in a barbershop that his father’s estate had been filed for probate. The father and son had a strained relationship.
Jake left his only son everything—stocks, bonds, and other assets—but withheld his most prized possession, the one-third interest in the 90,000 acres on two Tom Green County ranches. In Jake’s will, he wrote that Willis could gain possession of his one-third share of the land only if he married and fathered a child by age 40. Willis was 24 at the time.
Willis married in 1979 but was still childless. He wouldn’t inherit his father’s land.
Instead, Willis was still able to manage the land and he reaped profits from the revenue of the oil and gas royalties. He became a respected San Angelo businessman, civic leader, and philanthropist. The latter is what he really wanted to be known as.
In 1984, one of Jake’s sisters died and Willis saw that as his chance to get a portion of the land he was never bequeathed because of his father’s breed-or-cede clause in the will. He sued his aunt’s estate for full title to the one-third interest in the land he would have otherwise inherited.
The family fought Willis, and the courtroom drama got nasty. Willis’ cousins argued that Jake’s intent in the breed-or-cede clause was to dispel the father’s suspicions that his only son was a homosexual. If Willis’ relations could prove Jake’s intent, and also show Willis was gay, it might make it harder for Willis to win.
Willis’ lawyers called the whole thing irrelevant.
Then, his cousins produced testimony—an affidavit—from a man who claimed to have been in a 10-year sexual relationship with Willis. The evidence could have been devastating, but Willis had hired a high-powered Houston law firm and they produced evidence that the purported gay lover had been paid $140 to sign the affidavit.
In court, Willis maintained that his father had no reason to be concerned about his sexual orientation.
Before the lawsuit was settled, and amid the swirling rumors and allegations of homosexual relationships, Willis suffered another blow. Willis reported to authorities that he found the body of a 25-year-old man on his ranch. The dead man had a deer rifle situated next to him. A Tom Green County Justice of the Peace ruled the death a suicide. But later, the autopsy report stated that someone had dressed and moved the body before authorities arrived at the scene.
Reporting the body or the affidavit mattered not in district and the appeals court. Willis won his land and the ruling was sustained on appeal. His cousins pressed the case to the Texas Supreme Court. There, the justices ruled that Jake’s will was clear and concise. No child, no land. They reversed the lower courts ruling and Willis ultimately lost the five-year legal battle that began in 1986.
Willis lived out the rest of his life quietly, continuing to manage his inheritance, and the land he could not own. He gave his money to worthy causes, including supporting the arts in San Angelo. He was the first president of the Cultural Affairs Council.
In later life, Willis wasn’t getting around as well as he used to. You’d see him occasionally visit his office walking with the aid of a walker. In June 2016, the local paper reported that Johnson sued Margaret Howard, the wife of Tom Green County Justice of the Peace Eddie Howard. Margaret served as Willis’ executive assistant. Willis claimed she stole or embezzled nearly $100,000 from him.
The case was settled out of court and no criminal charges were ever filed, even though Willis claimed in his lawsuit he hired forensic accountants to prove his case.
We tried to interview Willis at his office when the lawsuit was filed, but he declined. And the Howards were forbidden from speaking, first by their attorney, and then by the settlement agreement.
The other side will never be officially proven, but the word inside the downtown building where Willis’ office was located was that Margaret was given, or took on, the uncomfortable task of urging Willis to move into an assisted living facility after a bad injury from a fall. The lawsuit may have been backlash.
At the end of his life, Willis donated to the San Angelo Area Foundation the lot next to the former Sealy Flats at S. Oakes and E. Twohig for the creation of Heritage Park, a landmark specified in the 1992 R/UDAT study that was the genesis of the rebirth of San Angelo’s downtown.
In addition to donating the land, Willis gave $150,000 for the commissioning of a statue of a cowboy and a horse to be the centerpiece of the small “pocket” park.
Some say he wanted the cowboy statue to be a tribute to his grandfather, one of the many founding fathers of San Angelo and Tom Green County.
Funeral services for Willis are pending at Robert Massie Funeral Home.
This article referenced William P. Barrett’s article on Willis titled, “Move Over, Rattlesnakes” that appeared in the January 21, 1991 issue of Forbes Magazine.