With a career that spans more than five decades in both public and private sectors, Jewel Willis built a growing business from the ground up. He played an important role in the timber industry, has been a consultant to private landowners and was a pioneer of hardwood forestry in Louisiana during the 1960s.
His name might not be recognizable to some, but Willis helped mold the state’s forestry industry into what it is today.
Jewel L. Willis was born in Palmetto in 1934 to humble beginnings. His father, Dan H. Willis, was a benefactor of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration. After graduating high school he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in Korea from 1953 to 1955. After his military service, he enrolled in Louisiana State University in 1955 on the G.I. Bill and took on the challenge of a double major. He earned a Bachelor of Forestry and a Bachelor of Game Management in 1959. His first job after graduation was with the U.S. Federal Wildlife Service at the White River National Wildlife Refuge in St. Charles, Arkansas.
In 1960, he moved back to Louisiana to take a job in Monroe with the Louisiana Forestry Commission, working primarily in fire prevention and pine forest management. At the time, the forest products industry placed little commercial value on hardwood timber. Given their continuous growth cycle, however, and their large population in the southern parishes, Willis began to recognize their commercial potential.
In 1963, Willis was still employed by the Forestry Commission but relocated to Lafayette to work in the horticulture building of the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) under the guidance of Dr. Jim Foret. At USL, Willis became an advocate for private landowners, advising them of when and how to harvest timber, how to keep and mark trees for harvest, how much to charge for timber and to which markets to sell.
It was this experience as an aid in the private sector that led to his dedication for counseling Louisiana landowners.
By 1969, Willis had married the former Gayle Templet, had four children and had to make a difficult decision. After taking a leave of absence from the Forestry Commission to serve as a consultant for the Thistlewaite family in St. Landry Parish, Willis chose to leave his job with the state, giving up generous benefits, to branch out into the timber and land management industry.
Willis did consulting work for several companies, including the Haas Hirsch estate and Thisco, advising them of how to market their timber efficiently.
In the early 1970s, he met forester Michael Taylor and the two formed a lengthy partnership as Willis and Taylor Forestry Consultants. Together, they advised and advocated for private landowners. They even testified on their behalf in dozens of legal cases, several of which progressed all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
During the 1990s, he worked with the Louisiana Army Corps of Engineers, engaging in Timber and Developmental Easement along the Atchafalaya Basin. He spent several years appraising every bayou in the Basin system and has significantly contributed to land conservation in the state’s marshlands.
In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Willis and grandson Daniel Suire powered a boat through flooded areas of New Orleans initially to check on his daughter, Mooney Bryant-Penland, and her husband, John, both registered nurses working at Charity Hospital at the time. Finding them unharmed, Willis and Suire rescued them and dozens of people who were stranded due to floodwaters.
It was also in that year Willis and his grandson formed a new partnership, Willis and Suire Forestry LLC. Together they expanded their area of operation to include woodlands throughout the state.
In 2014, Willis officially retired, handing the reins over to his grandson. These days he spends much of his time on his thousand-acre property in Lebeau.