CHIPPEWA FALLS — Bernard Willi committed much of his life to volunteering in the Chippewa Falls community, from mentoring children and serving in area non-profits to a stint as mayor.
Willi, 92, died Saturday.
“He loved the city, loved Chippewa Falls, was concerned about the citizens,” said current mayor Greg Hoffman. “He was a tremendous volunteer. It says a lot about someone who wants to step up. Chippewa Falls lost a very good friend to the city.”
Hoffman said Willi was always polite and pleasant.
“He was very successful in how he lived his life,” Hoffman said.
Leroy Janke, who serves as Chippewa Falls Patriotic Council secretary/treasurer, said Willi was a member of the organization for decades, attending an average of 50 funerals a year to honor deceased veterans. Willi rarely missed a funeral.
“About four years ago, he had to stop participating,” Janke said. “I’d pick him up for meetings when he stopped driving 10 years ago.”
Janke said Willi loved his time as a mentor, often working with multiple children each year. He also enjoyed working with numerous organizations, from the American Legion to the Optimist Club, he said.
“He just liked to help people,” Janke said. “He was a friend to a lot of people in the area because he liked to be involved.”
Known by his nickname of “Buni,” the former mayor was honored in February 2018 by the Chippewa Falls Optimist Club for “his extraordinary career of community service.”
Willi was “a driving force behind the communities’ Memorial Day parades, Pure Water Days, Crazy Days and the Heritage Fun Fest,” the Optimist Club stated in a press release last year when announcing the lifetime achievement ceremony. “He’s been a longtime member (and served in just about every role imaginable) of the Chippewa Falls Optimist Club, Patriotic Council, American Legion Post 77, Kiwanis and Main Street organizations.”
Chippewa Falls councilman CW King echoed praise for Willi’s willingness to volunteer.
“Buni was a really good mayor,” King said. “He did a lot for the city. He was the biggest advocate for the city. He did a lot for Chippewa and will be greatly missed.”
Willi was a Chippewa Falls city native, and he graduated from Chippewa Falls High School in 1945. He joined the U.S. Navy out of high school, but hearing issues led to his dismissal. He served as postmaster in the city for several years, and became active in volunteering, whether it was the Optimist Club or a variety of other service groups. He also was one of the people who began a mentoring program in the Chippewa Falls schools. In an interview last year, Willi said he was mentor to about 75 students over 20 years of work.
“One year, I had 15,” he said last year. “I went to every school except Jim Falls. I like the idea of a chance to help someone who, with just a little push, can turn out OK.”
Willi served as Chippewa Falls mayor from 1990 to 1992. In that two-year term, he was instrumental in getting a new municipal pool built, which has since been named the Bernard Willi Municipal Pool. He took the honorary first trip down the slide when it opened.
The old pool was destroyed and replaced with the new one on the same location.
Willi also pushed for constructing a new police station and the second fire station on the south side of the city.
Janke said that Willi’s push for those new buildings likely cost Willi a chance at winning a second term, as he lost the mayor seat to challenger Virginia Smith. However, Willi believed it was worth the cost, Janke said.
“He thought there was a need for it,” Janke said.