John Willingham can trace his roots back to the Mayflower. As a Winston-Salem native, Willingham said that many of his roots lead back to the settling of Old Salem. He is following in his great grandfather’s footsteps as a business owner and philanthropist.
“My great grandfather, Colonel Francis Fries, was a hugely successful man,” Willingham said. “He was the first president of Wachovia Bank, he started Indera Mills, he started Washington Mills, he built a railroad from Roanoke to Winston-Salem and he started Arista Mills. He also started the Winston-Salem Foundation so he was a highly successful and respected man and I like to think that some of the genes from him got to me.”
Willingham said he started his path to success when his parents sent him to the Asheville School, a private school in western North Carolina.
“I went to a grammar school in Winston-Salem and I thoroughly enjoyed it but my parents felt like there was an opportunity to reach a little further and they wanted me to go to this school in Asheville and I wasn’t at all sure about going because I didn’t know what to expect and I was scared,” Willingham said.
The move was a difficult one for Willingham. Classes took place six days a week and were very involved and hands on. He said that once he learned how to study properly and developed a healthy bit of competition he learned how to be successful at his school and make the most out of the opportunity.
“Once I realized how successful I could be if I applied myself I really worked hard,” Willingham said. “I have to say I’m a driven and fairly competitive person and so I rose the occasion and that’s what gave me the foundation to go to Yale.”
Willingham graduated from Yale with a bachelor of the arts degree in economics. This would provide him with the foundation he needed to venture down the road of business ownership. However, straight out of college Willingham wasn’t planning how he would take on the family business, instead he was preparing himself to go to war.
“When I graduated from college I had no idea what I was going to do except that I was positive I was going to Vietnam because it was at the height of the Vietnam War,” Willingham said. “Sure enough I was drafted but I had a knee problem and that caused me not to pass the medical physical. Suddenly where I thought I was going for the next two or more years didn’t happen.”
Willingham said that from there he decided it was time to enter the workforce and went straight to where he had spent all his summers working, Indera Mills. His father, who was the business owner at the time, told Willingham that he shouldn’t just settle on Indera Mills because it was the family business and urged him to interview at other businesses before he made his decision.
He sat down with hiring managers at Reynolds Tobacco, Hanes Brands and Western Electric but Willingham still felt a strong pull to the family business so he returned and his father put him to work at the bottom.
“My dad was very insistent that I not get any breaks or any favoritism from day one,” Willingham said. “I learned the business from the bottom up and as the opportunities came along I took advantage of them. I work very hard and I have worked hard and I love it. I love the challenge.”
Once he took over the business, Willingham moved the Indera Mills headquarters to Yadkin County in 1998. He said the move wouldn’t have been possible without the help of his wife, Donna, and her mother.
“When we decided to move our business to Yadkin County in 1998 her mom called and told us there was a factory open behind the old post office and we were able to buy it and move our business up here,” Willingham said. “I give her mom a lot of credit for our move here and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Aside from operating the third largest manufacturer of thermal underwear in the world, Willingham also devotes himself to service to his community. His addiction to volunteering started while Indera Mills was still in Winston-Salem. He served on boards for the Brenners Children’s Hospital, the Winston-Salem Symphony and Ducks Unlimited.
Willingham said that once he moved to Yadkin County he decided to put his other charitable work behind him and start over on a project that he felt needed his help.
“My real interest was the arts council because it was a very small organization and I wanted to help it,” Willingham said. “I invited myself onto the board and I saw the opportunity for the arts council to become a very important organization and a force in this community so in the beginning I wanted to see it grow and be successful and have an impact.”
Willingham was instrumental in the development of the Yadkin County Cultural Arts Center that sits in downtown Yadkinville today. He purchased the building and donated to the arts council and helped to guide it to completion.
He says that the theater and arts center is his legacy because of the time and energy he has put into seeing it come to completion and that while it embarrasses him to have his name on the theater he is proud to see what the arts council has accomplished and the effect the center is having on the community.
“It’s a resource that people can use, enjoy, appreciate and learn,” Willingham said. “There’s also the economic aspect, which is about bringing tourism in and businesses wanting to be here because they see quality of life improving. It’s got a big place in my heart right now.”
Willingham said that while he has not intentions of retiring anytime soon he does plan to take a step back from his work as president of the arts council to relax and enjoy his hobbies now that the arts center is completed.
He is an avid outdoorsman and loves to hike, camp, hunt and especially fly fish. It’s a hobby that he shares with his wife and he says that he loves nothing more than taking off to fish all over the world whenever he they can get away.
“It’s just an escape from the world and we love that connection with nature,” Willingham said.
Willingham said that he can’t see himself anywhere else in his life right now and he feels totally fulfilled.
“I don’t have a desire to let go of anything at this point,” Willingham said. “I’m very satisfied and I feel very fulfilled in all of the things that I do. I judge success by how happy I am and I feel very happy. I hope that when it’s all over with and I take my last breath that I am as happy as I am today.”
Reach Lindsay Craven at 679-2341 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.