Inez Willis


Velma Inez Willis: Jan. 20, 1942 – Dec. 14, 2021.

Inez was born during the early stages of World War II, in the midst of a struggling economy, but to a close-knit community of extended family members and friends. She was born in Tracy City, Tenn., to the late Clarence Edward Church and Jenny Annie Lee Lawson Church. She also had an older sister, Mary Louise Thornberry, who preceded her in death.

Inez attended Shook Elementary School and graduated in 1960 from Grundy County High School, Tracy City. While in high school, she was a member of the girls’ varsity basketball team and cheerleading squad during football season.

She attended Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn. While in college, she worked on weekends in the summer months operating a gift shop in Monteagle, Tenn. Her first management position was as the bookkeeping and office manager for the Monteagle Silo Company, of Monteagle, Tenn., during 1966-69. In 1970, she moved to the First National Bank in Tracy City, where she served in bookkeeping and teller for the years 1970-78.

Inez moved to North Carolina in early 1986, where she was employed by WRGC radio station in Sylva. She purchased Petticoat Junction Lingerie on Main Street, Sylva, and operated it for a decade, closing it in December 1996. While operating Petticoat Junction, Inez became active in the Downtown Sylva Merchants Association, serving two terms as president of the organization. Following the closing of Petticoat Junction, she was employed by Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee, retiring in 2010.

Inez was an avid reader of history, especially of the area of her early childhood. The evocation that rivaled history was genealogy. Like a great number of people as they approach midlife, they begin to want to learn of their ancestry. Inez discovered her Indian ancestry in multiple lines to her family’s tree. Some of the study resulted in her leading a small group of similar ancestry in her hometown to form an organization called Chickamaka Cultural Reservation Corporation. It is dedicated to the preservation of their ancestral culture and conservation of the land. The organization has entered into a cooperative agreement with the Grundy County Historical Society, whereby they maintain artifacts and displays in a gallery at the Grundy County Historical Society Heritage Center in Tracy City. The exhibit portrays their ancestor’s dress, hunting tools, implements of war, maps of their settlements and various other information regarding their livelihood. The exhibit is on permanent display and continues to garner extensive interest among the patrons to the Center.

Inez was a loving and caring wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and friend. She loved her family and always looked forward to large family gatherings. Her grandchildren were very important to her, and she enjoyed showing pictures of them to family and friends. One of her favorite things to do was to visit Paula Mathis and get her hair “fixed” once a week for over 30 years. She will be remembered as a passionate, spunky, lover of life and family.

Inez is survived by her husband, Ralph Houston Willis of Cullowhee; two daughters, Jennie Ann DeMotta (George) of Tracy City, Tenn., Bobbie White Buckner (Jared) of Marion, N.C.; grandchildren, Bethany Cooley, Abigail Buckner, Eliza Buckner, Andrew Buckner; great-grandchildren, Annabelle Kirkland, McKinley Kirkland and Jaxon Kirkland.

Appalachian Funeral Services has been assisting with funeral arrangements. Services have taken place in Tracy City, Tenn.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions in Inez’s name be made to Grundy County Historical Society Heritage Center, P.O. Box 1422, 465 Railroad Ave., Tracy City, TN 37387.