News

Tech Great Willis Honored

7/11/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Cable’s old guard filled the Church of Parker (Colo.) last Wednesday (July 8) to honor one of the industry’s engineering greats — David Willis, who served as Tele-Communications Inc.’s director of engineering from 1971 to 1992.

Willis died on July 4 after suffering a stroke at his Lone Tree, Colo., home. He was 78.

Willis got his cable start the hard way: Installing antennas on top of a 750-foot tower in Sydney, Neb., (his hometown) in the early 1960s, for Collier Electric Co. TCI acquired Collier and moved Willis to Denver, where he helped grow the company from 250,000 to 13 million subscribers over the next 22 years as its technical helmsman.

Friends and former colleagues described Willis as a fisherman, musician, painter, poet, Mensa member, familial Trivial Pursuit champion and good friend to “hundreds if not thousands” of people. Case in point: When a former colleague and friend lost his vision five years ago, Willis visited weekly with provisions and companionship.

“Dave had to be the busiest guy around, but he always found time to take calls from a fellow cable guy and was always well informed and helpful,” said Joe Van Loan, former chief technical officer of Mediacom Communications.

Many affectionately called Willis “ornery,” recalling, among other anecdotes, his retirement decision to wear a diamond-stud earring. He mentioned the plan in a 1992 edition of Multichannel News, and was subsequently flooded with earrings, which he wore with gusto.

Willis organized sack-lunch meetings with technical presentations for Denver-area engineers long before Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers chapters existed, and was a long-time supporter of the SCTE. After his retirement, Willis organized the popular technology archive at the Cable Center, earning him the title “Curator Emeritus” — a title he enjoyed enormously, staffers said.

His good humor and kindness knew no boundaries. During the service, a young man stood to pay his respects, saying that he’d met the Willises the week before Dave died, at a dog park (Willis and his golden retriever, Aspen, were inseparable). “I’d like to think I’m Dave’s newest friend,” he said.

Willis is survived by his wife of 51 years, Phyllis, his children Kelly, Randy, and Todd, and grandchildren Krystina, Tony, Alex, Lark, Tyler and Keira.

According to his family, Willis was a strong supporter of the Freedom Alliance, so it was suggested donations be made at www.freedomalliance.org.

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