Former Shelby Co. Commissioner John Willingham passes away - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

Former Shelby Co. Commissioner John Willingham passes away

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John Willingham's Ribs display at 2013 Memphis in May Barbeque Cooking Contest (Juan De La Fuente / FOX13 News) John Willingham's Ribs display at 2013 Memphis in May Barbeque Cooking Contest (Juan De La Fuente / FOX13 News)
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (FOX13) -

On the eve of the 36th annual Memphis In May International Barbeque Contest, former barbeque champion and Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham has passed away.

Mr. Willingham was 80. He would have been 81 on Sunday,  May 19.

Family members were gathered by his bedside when he passed away of congestive heart failure. A family member told FOX13 News Mr. Willingham died peacefully and "died with as much grace as he did everything else."

The Memphis In May Festival organizers said via social media that Mr. Willingham and his team were scheduled to compete this weekend's world championship. His team will still compete in his honor.

He ran several times as a candidate for Memphis and Shelby County mayor and was a past Memphis In May barbecue contest champion.

"Commissioner Willingham faithfully served the citizens of Shelby County," said Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell in a statement. "His dedication to our community was evident. Even after his retirement from the Shelby County Commission, he continued to think of new ways to improve the quality of life for citizens and was always a friend to those of us serving in government roles. We will miss his faithful, compassionate and caring spirit."

Known internationally for not only his barbeque but his barbeque smoker the Wham cooker, which literally changed the way people smoked pork and just about anything else. But Willingham was the main reason people always stopped by the Willingham BBQ tent and that did not stop with news of his death.

"I wasn't down here last night but the team told me so many people came by and they were people we've never seen before, never knew, said Clay Tempelton, son-in-law. "Everybody was just, sorry for your loss, just on and on. The outpouring was unbelievable.

"It's ironic, very ironic (of the timing). He told us last year was his last competition," Templeton added. "He got the big award, we got him this big banner that said 'Happy 80th Birthday Big John,' and it was a big celebration. Said it was his last year. Then this came up and I said we'll, he's got one more in him."

But that was not to be. Big John passed away the night before the Memphis In May BBQ Cookoff was to begin. But he had everything ready to go.

"This was a big year for John," Tempelton said. "He was the Grand Poobah. First time they had ever done that, and he was just inducted into the BBQ Hall of Fame in Kansas City."

For the first time ever a BBQ team that's actually in the competition is selling its barbeque. Once again it was Mr. Willingham that got it done, which only makes it that much harder for everyone who knew him.

"It's different, and it's going to be hard to do because he is not going to see everything that he worked so hard for," Tempelton said. "We will get through it. It's a strong group of people, great supporting cast here so we're going to make it."

According to his website, Mr. Willingham created the "W'ham Turbo Cooker, "W'ham Seasonings" and "W'ham Sauces." For over two decades in the 1980s and 1990s he won several Memphis In May Barbeque Contest awards, including being named twice the Overall World's Bar-B-Que Grand Champion.

He won 15 Memphis In May Barbeque contest awards ranging from grand champion, people's choice, and best cooker in the world.

He also owned several restaurants throughout The South.

Mr. Willingham's barbeque legacy continues on the Internet with sales of his recipe book and seasonings on such websites like

Mr. Willingham graduated from David H. Hickman High School in Columbia, Mo., in 1950, and the University of Missouri in 1954.

Funeral arrangements are pending.


FOX13 News Good Morning Memphis reporter Earle Farrell contributed to this report.

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