John H. Willig, 89, nurseryman who enjoyed motorcycle riding

August 27, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

John H. Willig, owner of a Harford County landscaping company and former competitive motorcycle rider, died of cancer Monday at his Fallston home. He was 89.

Mr. Willig was born and raised on his family's Kingsville farm. He attended Baltimore County public schools until the sixth grade, when he left to work with his father, who raised fruits and vegetables.

Mr. Willig was a well-known amateur boxer during the 1930s until a farm accident that left him with an injured hand ended his career.

During World War II he was deferred from military service because of damaged hearing that was caused by a high fever in his youth, and he worked at Edgewood Arsenal as a carpenter and grounds manager.

"He could not hear a siren, yet several friends and family members told us that he could identify the make and model of a motorcycle from quite a distance without seeing it, just by hearing it," said a son, Blaise Willig, a Kingsville writer and editor.

In 1945, he established Stoney Batter Nursery, a commercial and residential landscaping and grounds maintenance business that he operated until this spring, when he was forced to retire because of failing health.

During the early 1940s, Mr. Willig took up motorcycle riding, and joined the Baltimore Ramblers, a motorcycle club, and began entering motorcycle competitions.

"Some endurance races were 100 miles long. He'd also race and do hill climbing events or dexterity challenges where motorcyclists weave between a course of cones. What made it a challenge was they weren't allowed to have their feet hit the ground while completing the course," his son said.

Through more than three decades of riding, Mr. Willig owned and rode some of the most desirable classic motorcycles ever made, including the Indian, Zundapp, AJS and Matchless. He also owned and drove more well-known Harley-Davidson, Triumph and BSA motorcycles.

"Sometimes he'd build his own from spare parts in his barn workshop," his son said. "And the highest speed he was officially clocked at was 114 mph."

For several years, Mr. Willig piled his two children into his motorcycle's sidecar and his wife on the seat behind him, and took off for Daytona Beach, Fla., so they could take in the Daytona 200 motorcycle races.

Family members recalled that he cut his lawn with a mower he had attached to the back of a three-wheeled motorcycle.

"He loved endurance runs and time trials, and did an awful lot of off-road racing, at which he was very good," said George Boschert, a cousin from Taneytown.

A stylish rider, Mr. Willig dressed in high-top black leather boots, a black leather jacket that he wore with a white shirt and tie, and a visored cap, his cousin said.

Mr. Willig stopped riding in the early 1970s, relegated his trophies to a dusty cellar shelf, and took up golf, which he vigorously pursued with several of his old motorcycle buddies who had also given up the open road and traded their bikes for golf clubs.

However, unhappy with commercially available putters, Mr. Willig retreated to his barn workshop and fashioned one that was more to his liking.

"We're not sure what he used to build his homemade putter, but the head looks like a piece of pipe with a plug at both ends, welded to the shaft. Whatever the ingredients, you can bet they were recycled from some other project," his son said.

Mr. Willig was a communicant of St. Mark Roman Catholic Church in Fallston, where a Mass of Christian burial was offered Thursday.

Also surviving are his wife of 60 years, the former Mildred Boschert; three other sons, Keith R. Willig of Kingsville, Craig C. Willig of Fallston and Jeff J. Willig of Fork; two sisters, Sena "Snooky" Dilworth and Melinda Bowles, both of Kingsville; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Another son, John H. Willig Jr., died in 1986.

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