We are proud to dedicate this month’s magazine to the memory of our founder, publisher, husband, father, and friend, Willie Harp, who passed away on January 28th. Often a bit ahead of his time, Willie fit a great deal of living into his 63 years. He was funny, friendly, generous, sometimes controversial, and stubborn. Willie was the kind of person that you didn’t forget. It was rare that he would walk into a room and not already know several people. And on the occasion that he did, he never hesitated to introduce himself and leave the room having made a new friend. He loved big, he gave big and he dreamed big.
A Cenlaian from birth, Willie was born to Gerald M. “Jerry” and Linnie Miller Harp on November 15, 1956 at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital. The youngest of three children (by 13 years!), he was a precocious kid, quarterbacking his little league football team and organizing garage bands with neighborhood friends around his beloved drum kit. As kids of little more than 9 or 10 years old, Willie and his bandmates made a guest appearance on “Leverne Perry and the Little Wranglers”, a popular local children’s show which ran from 1960 to 1966.
Willie grew up in Cherokee Village where he made lifelong friendships, and learned the finer points of gardening and working the soil from Mr. O.D. Patton and Walter, the neighborhood handyman. From a young age, Willie was the kind of personality that once you met, you remembered. He attended Cherokee Elementary, Brame Junior High and Alexandria Senior High, where each of his teachers would recall him long after graduation with a sly grin and a slight shake of their head. He was an accomplished member of the Speech and Debate Team, claiming the title of National Grand Champion. This success encouraged him to head west after graduation to California and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in Pasadena. His passion and gift for public speaking would serve him well for the rest of his life. Upon graduating from AADA, Willie returned to Alexandria to join his family business, the investment firm Harp, Wilder & Associates.
After moving back to Alexandria, Willie met and married Lisa Alford in 1981. Over the next five years, the couple became parents to four boys. Willie was a proud, fun-loving and devoted father who thought his sons hung the moon. In 2004, he became a grandfather with the arrival of “the light of his life”, his first granddaughter. He loved his family fiercely and always made sure they knew it. As a parent and grandparent, he taught valuable lessons through his compassion, generosity and kindness toward all people.
Willie was outgoing, funny (sometimes inappropriately), driven, ambitious, and hard-working. He inherited many of these qualities and his entrepreneurial spirit from his mother, who was an accomplished businesswoman in her own right, and his uncle, her brother—and Willie’s namesake—Willard “Uncle Noug” Miller. Willie was destined to be a salesman from childhood, when he made pocket money by selling pine cones he gathered to neighbors. As a young adult, his very first foray into business was an indoor “space-scaping” company he founded, named “Fern, Fern & Palm”. He knew how much everyone loved incorporating plants into their homes and work spaces. The company potted, distributed and cared for indoor plants, giving clients the benefit of beautiful nature without all the hard work of upkeep. His love of gardening continued throughout his life. His lawn was almost always adorned with large hanging ferns and generations of neighbors benefitted from his tomato garden.
Over the years, Willie held many varied jobs. In turns, he bailed pine straw for sale to landscapers, sold life insurance, and sold cell phones back when they had to be carried around in a bag. On the recommendation of his friend and mentor, Mr. Paul Adams, Willie served as the interim Executive Director at the YMCA on Turner Street in Alexandria. During his term, he secured a grant for a badly needed new transport van, and led a capital campaign to make much needed repairs to the facilities at both the “Y” and its wilderness camp, Camp Windywood. Willie’s drive to impact his community in positive ways led him to campaign twice for the state legislature, though unsuccessfully. He was also a proud member of the Downtown Alexandria Rotary Club, where he sought to live out the tenets of the 4-Way Test in his daily life: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
Willie loved to cook and he was good at it. That joy combined with his entrepreneurial spirit in a passion for the restaurant business. Ever the optimist, he never let a setback set him back. He bought the Taco Bell franchise in Natchitoches and built the original locations in both Alexandria and Kings Country in Pineville. Years later, the Harp-Wilder team reunited in the form of a partnership with nephew Rusty Wilder to bring the original Smoothie King franchise to Alexandria, eventually owning additional locations in Monroe and Shreveport. In the mid-2000s, he was inspired to develop a new coffee/beignet/frozen slab ice cream shop called Cenla Perks. His last foray into the restaurant business was to extend the life of a Cenla institution, Westside BBQ, formerly Johnny & Jim’s, at its new location on Jackson Street Extension. During his restaurant career, he also served as the President of the Cenla Chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association.
While traveling between Alexandria, Monroe and Shreveport with Smoothie King, Willie noticed that each area boasted something that Cenla lacked, a true community magazine. In 1998, with just his entrepreneurial spirit, love for Cenla and a bit of “divine inspiration”, he founded Cenla Focus Magazine. His vision for the magazine was for it to serve as the community cheerleader for all of Central Louisiana. He worked tirelessly to build the magazine from the ground up in an environment where others had failed. In true Willie form, it never occurred to him that his magazine might not work. He attended every community event, grand opening and social event possible, snapping pictures and soliciting ideas for the magazine.
Everywhere he went, he would invite business owners, nonprofit organizations and people everywhere to, “Get in Focus!” Willie was a seemingly endless well of energy and enthusiasm, and also the creative heart and soul of the magazine for over two decades. He often bragged that it was “the longest I’ve ever held a job.” During his time leading the magazine, he coined the term “Cenla-ian” to recognize an outstanding member of our community on the cover of a dedicated issue each year. He is also responsible for the often-duplicated “Best of Cenla Reader’s Choice Awards” and our now-famous, always popular “About Town” and “Focus Faces” picture pages.
Willie’s ambition and drive extended well beyond the business world. He possessed a kind nature, friendly spirit, and the heart of a servant, much like his father. He often drove around in his truck with custom care packages that he assembled, offering them to people in need. Those giant Ziploc bags with a tarp, a snack, toiletries and bus passes also had his business card and cell number in them. And people called, sometimes in the middle of the night. But that was Willie. If he saw a need, he tried to fill it.
Arguably his proudest philanthropic accomplishment was the establishment of A Perfect Fit Foundation, in honor of his father. In his own words, “In October 2006, my father, Jerry Harp, passed away at the age of 82. At his funeral, long-time family friend Barbara Brister, former Executive Director of the YWCA, suggested to me that I form a foundation in my father’s honor with the mission of providing shoes, free of charge, to underprivileged elementary school children,” Willie recalled. “This most basic need was all too often being met by individual teachers out of their own pockets.”
Since its inception, the Foundation, in partnership with the Central Louisiana Community Foundation, has provided over 20,000 well-fitted, uniform-approved shoes to underprivileged elementary school children in Rapides Parish. Willie garnered yearly support for the Foundation through an annual pancake fundraiser, held each September—a tradition that continues today. As was his wish, 100% of all funds raised go towards the purchase of shoes for children. He was fond of saying, “With a little help, we can find the Perfect Fit for each child in need right here in Cenla.”
Willie lived life wide open. He captained a sail boat under the Golden Gate Bridge. A piece of his artwork hung in the office of U.S. Senator Long in the United States Capitol. He took in Saints games with Bono and Jimmy Buffet on the field of the Superdome and spent memorable Saturday nights in the fall alongside Tiger greats like Billy Canon and Y.A. Tittle on the sidelines of Death Valley. He shared a joke with the Dalai Lama in a photographic moment that circled the globe. He was always unapologetically and unforgettably “Willie”. He was imperfect, as are we all, but he left his community better than he found it. We will strive to honor his legacy of recognizing the best in our community and in ourselves, by giving generously and always keeping Cenla in Focus.