“The Willis Clan,” one of the latest reality TV shows, isn’t just an episodic entry airing on Scripps’ Great American Country Network, a cable channel, Thursday nights at 8 p.m.
They’re a real, flesh-and-blood clan of children ages 2 to 21, online at www.thewillisclan.com. The sheer number prompted my first question to the brood’s mother, Brenda Willis: “Aren’t you always tired?”
“How’d you guess?” was her laughing reply, with husband Toby chiming in on speakerphone, “The answer is ‘yes.’ “
Explaining a bit further, Mrs. Willis added that living with 12 children at home can be exhausting: “Of course, but it works out — the kids give you energy. When you feel you can’t go on, you find a place deep down inside.”
And “deep down inside,” where a quiet Christian faith is their core, is where the Willis family — particularly the parents — have found a lot of inner strength. Mr. Willis, 43, is one of the older, surviving children of the Rev. Duane “Scott” Willis and his wife, Janet, who lost their six youngest children, five boys and a girl, in an horrific 1994 automobile accident.
The cause was traced to an Illinois trucker who obtained his license in exchange for a bribe. The state made a substantial financial settlement with Scott Willis’ family, providing Toby and Brenda Willis the means to “retire” and raise their family on their own terms.
Toby, a “preacher’s kid” and an accomplished wrestler, and Brenda, herself musically gifted, were high school sweethearts who sang in churches before they married. They eventually settled outside of Nashville, Tenn., and his parents now live “about 10 minutes away,” Mr. Willis said.
The accident’s greatest impact, Mr. Willis said, was to reveal the nature of their faith: “We had faith before, and we had faith afterwards; there’s nobody else to turn to. People of faith [in the Bible] went through hard times, even worse than we went through. Just because you have faith in God, it doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen,” he said.
Mrs. Willis said she drew on that faith to confront another family tragedy, this one in their Tennessee compound: “Eight years ago, our house burned down to the ground. It was a total loss. I just held my kids and said, ‘Thank you, God.’ It gave me a different perspective on life, in comparison to my in-law’s tragedy. When you go through hard things like that it strengthens you.”
The Willises rebuilt and completed that family of a dozen children, something the couple planned before their marriage, Mr. Willis said.
“I can’t say we saw all the details, you kind of make it up as you go,” he explained. “Instead of ‘ready, aim, fire,’ we aim a little bit, fire and aim a lot later. Along the way, when you discover things, the missile changes course. Before we got married, we agreed that we’d try for 12 kids. We had that conversation, and reached that conclusion.”
The “conclusion” includes eight girls and four boys: Jessica, 21; Jeremiah, 20; Jennifer, 18; Jeanette, 17; Jackson, 15; Jedi, 13; Jasmine, 11; Juliette, 10; Jaime, 8; Joy Anna, 6; Jaeger, 3; and Jada, 2. The children are home-schooled, and a publicist’s claim doesn’t seem too boastful: “If raising a large family was an extreme sport, Toby and Brenda Willis would be gold medalists.”
The children do chores in the morning, academics — including classes in logic, Mr. Willis said — and then settle in for music and dance practice. Originally, this was to give the children a well-rounded education. Then, the family saw a stage production that changed everything.
“We went and saw ‘Riverdance,’ and got involved in Irish dancing and going to music festivals,” Mrs. Willis said. “And we started getting into that. Did we know Irish music and dancing? No. We kind of walked through doors and some amazing things happened.”