HANFORD — There are few people who are the true embodiment of “larger than life,” but local musician Kevin Blake Willard was the real deal.
Willard, who died Tuesday in a car accident at the age of 47, may not have been famous around the country, but he was around here.
Ask any of his family or friends, and they can come up with a plethora of positive words that describe Willard, but “larger than life” was always the first.
“He didn’t know a stranger,” Willard’s wife, Irene Willard, said. “He talked to everyone.”
For Irene Willard, talking about her husband, though difficult, brought some laughter when reflecting on the person he was. There was no one memory she could use to perfectly explain the type of person Willard was, because every memory was a perfect example.
He had a knack for making everyone he came into contact with feel like they were important, Irene Willard said. He could light up a room and make everyone smile. He was everyone’s best friend, everyone’s brother.
“After 10 minutes of talking with him, you walked away with a brand new friend,” Irene Willard said.
He was passionate, giving, and always had kind words or a hand to help anyone in need, Irene Willard said. She said he always had the back of everyone he knew.
“Everything felt right when he was there,” Irene Willard said. “Nothing can compare to him.”
According to those who knew him, bad jokes were one of Willard’s fortes.
“He loved to entertain; even if he was telling the same jokes at every single gig,” Irene Willard said chuckling. “He was hilarious.”
“He was the king of corny jokes,” Kim Willard, Willard’s cousin through marriage, said. “He told them over and over again to the point where I memorized them; but I still laughed every time.”
Many of the people who knew Willard knew him from the many times he played locally with his band of over 20 years, the Cadillac Cowboys. The singer and self-taught guitar player was a staple at local events.
He would play anywhere and everywhere, Irene Willard said; but he loved to play at charity events or events that would benefit others in some way.
Jim Castleman, who knew Willard for 17 years through being involved with Thursday Night Market Place in Hanford and Rockin’ the Arbor in Lemoore, said Willard was always smiling, positive and the life of the party.
“There was never a dull moment when he was around,” Castleman said. “He was one of the good guys; had a lot to give to life”
Willard was a great songwriter who loved music and loved interacting with the audience and making sure they were having a good time, Castleman said.
“Musically, his style was just so popular with our Thursday Night Market Place crowd,” said Shelley Johnson, executive director of Main Street Hanford, adding Willard was always professional and easy to work with.
Irene Willard said Willard was always singing, even changing the lyrics of songs to make them funny. She said sometimes she even caught herself singing the lyrics he made up instead of what the actual song said.
Along with music, Irene Willard said her husband loved his country and loved the Rams. He was vocal about his opinions and didn’t care what anyone else thought; embarrassment and shame were not words Willard knew, she said.
Hardworking, confident and laid-back were just a few of the other ways Willard was described. No matter what anyone did to him, Irene Willard said he would always give people second and third chances, never holding a grudge.
Willard’s mom, wife, and kids, daughters Bailey Jo and Brooke and son Blake were his world. Irene Willard said he was a great brother and son, and would check on his mom every week to make sure she was doing well.
“He was a good man,” Irene Willard said. “I’ll never stop loving him.”
Bailey Jo, Willard’s oldest daughter, said her father introduced her to the rodeo when she was only seven years old, teaching her how to ride horses and rope.
“I remember I was so scared the first time I got on a horse,” Bailey Jo said. “But my dad was my buddy and we rode together for almost 10 years.”
It didn’t matter where the rodeo was, Bailey Jo said her dad would drive for hours just to see her ride.
“He was at every rodeo; he got me every horse,” Baily Jo said. “He was always there.”
She laughed when remembering how her dad taught her to drive. She said he made her drive for the first time in a truck with a horse trailer attached to the back.
When Bailey Jo was old enough, she would go to her dad’s gigs, and even when she moved away, her friends would send her pictures or videos of him playing.
“His music will live on,” Bailey Jo said. “I’m lucky to be his daughter.”
The void Willard has left with his family, friends and anyone who came into contact with him may never be filled; luckily, he left enough memories to last a lifetime. Irene Willard wants everyone who knew her husband to know that he loved and cared for them.
Family members said Willard would not want anyone to mourn his life, because right now, he’s in heaven introducing himself to others and figuring out how to start a new band.