WILLIE His fishing boats — and his legend — will outlive Willie Illingworth By Mark Freeman Mail Tribune After spending three months bending and cutting and welding metal, fishing guide Willie Illingworth thought the best way to test-drive the first aluminum, McKenzie-style driftboat was a fishing trip on the Rogue River. He and Jim Parsons, Illingworth's fishing client and financial backer in this experiment, trailered the 16-foot-long boat from Medford to Valley of the Rogue State Park for launch into the Rogue. Instantly, the boat handled like a dream, far lighter and more maneuverable than the clunky, rot-prone wooden driftboats that were the standard for Northwest river anglers at the time. "When we took the boat down there, I figured its time was ready," Illingworth recalls. "After I put it in the water and took three (oar) strokes, I thought it was past due." Illingworth quickly began mass-producing these welded boats at a rate of one per week. Within a year, he was a year behind on orders. That's how Illingworth fathered the aluminum driftboat industry that spring day in 1971, beginning his 35-year run as the gruff-talking, hard-playing public face of a multimillion-dollar watercraft genre that still calls Medford its hub. A legendary innovator and sometimes- charming salesman known as much for his wild living as his popular boats, Illingworth created the boat style that now is the standard among river anglers throughout North America and beyond. Along the way, the man known simply as "Willie" has crafted friendships and business deals with everyone from legendary pilot Chuck Yeager and NFL players to barfly anglers at any of the local saloons he's frequented here for decades. "He's a legend," says Buzz Ramsey, a longtime friend and a former Luhr Jensen fishing-gear icon. "There are people who just go through their lives, and that's fine. Then there are people who really make an impact. "Willie has made an impact," Ramsey says. "And, yeah, we all have stories about Willie." But the Illingworth saga has reached its final chapter. Brain cancer, discovered two years ago, is doing what decades of cigarettes and tequila couldn't muster. The cancer is killing 64-year-old Illingworth, leaving him weak and bedridden while he attends to his personal affairs and those of his company, Willie Boats. "They tell me I'm dying," he says, "but I'm putting up a hell of a fight." Though floored by that fight, Illingworth won't be one to miss a party. He'll be throwing his farewell bash Jan. 27 in Medford. "I don't want to miss my own wake, especially if I'm paying for it," he says, laughing. u Before that day on the Rogue in 1971, William J. Illingworth was flying well under the world's radar screen as yet another twentysomething river rat more interested in fish than work. He dabbled in odd jobs in mills and tackle shops before settling in as a part-time guide, part-time broke fisherman plying Southern Oregon's streams for their salmon, steelhead and sturgeon. Like most anglers at the time, Illingworth rowed friends and clients in a wooden, whitewater driftboat first designed for use on the McKenzie River near Eugene. With a high bow and low transom and steep curves, the boat was perfectly designed for use in swift, shallow waters where maneuverability is a premium. The oarsman sat in the middle, rowing against the current to pivot and steer the boat through rapids and around rocks between fishing holes on Western salmon streams. But the wooden boats were bulky, cumbersome, easily sunk and in constant repair. "I wanted to get away from the maintenance, putting plywood patches on it all the time," Illingworth says. "I just figured, there had to be a better way." At the time, the only Rogue Valley builders experimenting outside of the wooden genre was Glen Wooldridge in Grants Pass. But Wooldridge built a different Rogue-style boat that was long, flat and bulky — perfect for motoring the Rogue around Grants Pass but not to Illingworth's rapid-running liking. Believing that fishing's future rested in an improved McKenzie design, Illingworth asked Wooldridge to build an aluminum version. Wooldridge declined. "I figured, if I wanted an aluminum McKenzie-style boat, I'd have to build one on my own," Illingworth says. He had no money, no welder. Not even welding experience. But he charmed Jim Parsons, an Ashland mill owner and regular fishing client, into advancing him $4,000 — enough to build six boats — and Alumaweld was born. In a rented shop off Court Street in Medford, Illingworth assembled scrap metal and a welder. A friend gave him some rudimentary lessons, but he found it tough as a one-handed craftsman. Illingworth had lost his left hand in an explosives accident when he was a child. As with other challenges he faced in a two-hander's world, he overcame initial clumsiness to craft his first welded creation — an aluminum mobile. Then came the infamous first boat. With his left stump lashed with leather to an oar, Illingworth felt instant affirmation as the light, bullet-proof boat sliced through the Rogue on its maiden voyage. "It felt pretty darn good after rowing wooden driftboats all these years," he says. The first boats, all modeled after wooden versions, sold for $495 apiece. "I figured, well, I'll sell a couple to my buddies and take it from there," Illingworth says. "If I had any orders, I'd bust my ass to get them out," he says. "If I didn't, I'd go fishing. Then a year later, I was a year behind." In the ensuing years, Alumaweld cranked out increasingly popular boats, tweaking the style and design based largely on customer suggestions. Many new orders were born on cocktail napkins, as were innovations to the boat's curves, gunnels and rails. "When you got down to business with Willie, he got on point," says Ramsey, who now works for Pure Fishing, an international tackle and angling corporation. "He loved to design custom boats. He was driven by that." Former employees eventually spun off other competitive businesses building driftboats, powerboats and even boat accessories and other aluminum contraptions. During slow times, welder Gene Gros built custom aluminum boxes for pickup truck beds. At Illingworth's urging, Gros created Highway Products in White City, now a multimillion-dollar business itself. "He's been such an icon in this valley," Gros says. "There's so many businesses, including mine, that started because of him." Illingworth sold his stake in Alumaweld in 1977 for $60,000. While awaiting his four-year, no-competition clause to expire, Illingworth turned his attention temporarily to raft frames and other water gear. The work was under the name Willie's R&D, which didn't always stand for Research & Development. "A lot of times, it was 'Raunchy & Distasteful," he says. In 1981, Illingworth reconstituted his signature line of driftboats under the Willie Boats name, ramping up production within two years. While eventually spreading into powerboats as well, the company's driftboat line remains a strong seller despite intense competition. All the while, he reveled in being Willie. The One-Handed Bandit held court regularly at fishing camps, boat shows, bars, his Justice Road shop, or in elk camp with Yeager, a fishing and hunting partner for more than a decade. Illingworth says he probably drew in a little more business over the years than his persona and off-colored quips repelled. "Somebody had to be Willie," he says. "And it might as well have been me. It was tough sometimes, but I enjoyed it." The company still sells the $5,000 to $6,500 boats at a clip of 275 to 300 a year. "It's been a dogfight every day," says Jim Bittle, Willie Boats' longtime general manager. "I think the saving grace for Willie Boats is that we didn't get out of the driftboat market. There's a mystique about Willie and his driftboats." u Cancer doesn't bow to mystique. Rarely ill, a poor-feeling Illingworth went to Providence Medford Medical Center in January 2005, saying he didn't feel well. After a seizure in the hospital's emergency room, tests revealed brain cancer. Ensuing tests discovered lung and colon cancer. "Well, if you're going to get sick, I guess you're really going to get sick," he says. Between rounds of chemotherapy, Illingworth still kept his summer salmon-fishing trips to Alaska's Kenai River. "It's proof that you have to live your life to the fullest until you don't have it anymore," Illingworth says. The chemotherapy now is over. Illingworth has made arrangements for his body to be cremated. His ashes will be placed in 75 glass vials he's ordered. They will go to friends who can still take Willie fishing. "I thought, now that's Willie," Ramsey says with a laugh. Illingworth says he has made arrangements so that the business bearing his name will continue seamlessly. "I didn't think I'd make it this long, but I have," Illingworth says. "And Willie Boats definitely will go on." There would be no Willie Boats at all had Wooldridge built him that boat he wanted 35 years ago, Illingworth says. Someone else, he says, would have welded that first McKenzie-style boat together. "I'd still be Willie," he says. "But I probably would have been Willie, an old, tired fishing guide."