by jamesc 8/15/2014 12:10:42 PM --
NORFOLK – The Northeast Community College Board of Governors has recognized one of its own for his heroic actions over the summer. During a lunch break at its monthly meeting Thursday in Norfolk, John W. Davies, board chairperson, declared August 14, 2014, as “Gene Willers Day.” Davies and Willers are more than just colleagues on the board - they are friends and neighbors who live in and near the village of Pilger.
Willers gained world-wide attention after tornadoes struck his hometown on the afternoon of June 16. As the tornadoes were bearing down on the village, Willers, president of the Midwest Bank branch, herded eight employees into the vault, knowing perfectly well they would be safe there. However, the vault could only be locked from the outside in order to keep those inside safe. After Willers locked the vault, he head headed down into the bank’s pitch-black cellar uncertain of his own fate.
He and the employees were ultimately untouched by the EF4 tornado routing its way through Pilger, but a twister ran directly into the bank, tearing the brick-wall off the front of the building, exposing its two-story interior.
Willers did not think twice about his actions. “We’re like a family and I’m the president and I take care of my family. That’s all there is to it,” he said after sacrificing his life to save the others.
“Gene is a hero,” Davies said. “You may think you know who a person is, but you really don’t know them until a certain moment shows up and you see or hear how they act or react act to a situation. It would have been pretty easy for any one of us to make sure we were in that vault that day and take the safe route. But Gene didn’t. In a moment’s notice, he did what he did because that’s who he is.”
Davies was thankful for Willers’ unselfish act for another reason. Davies’ wife, Diane, was one of the people in the vault. Her CPA office was located in the back of the bank building. “After seeing the destruction of the building, she and the others would not have probably survived if it wasn’t for Gene,” Davies said.
He said a quote from the 2005 film “Batman Begins” bests describes Gene Willers – “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” “He’s one of those people you know will always do the right thing,” Davies said.