Frank B. Willis
Frank Willis served as governor of Ohio from 1915 to 1917.
Ohio governor Frank Bartlett Willis was born in Lewis Center, Ohio, on December 28, 1871. He grew up on a farm. After attending the local public schools, Willis enrolled at Ohio Northern University. Coming from a relatively poor family, the young student had to work his way through college by doing odd jobs and teaching school. He received his degree from Ohio Northern in 1894 and then became a professor of economics and history there. While teaching at the university, Willis began to study the law. Willis gained admittance to the Ohio bar in 1906. Rather than setting up a law practice, he began to teach legal courses at Ohio Northern.
A member of the Republican Party, Willis first entered politics when he was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1900. Although he was still a young man, he quickly gained the respect of the citizens of his district and of his fellow politicians. He served from 1900 to 1904. Running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1904, Willis returned to Ohio Northern University after the end of his term in state government. In 1910, Willis was elected to Congress. He served as one of Ohio's representatives until January 1915, when he resigned to become Ohio governor. Willis became the first Ohio governor to be chosen under the new direct primary system. He defeated Governor James M. Cox by advocating a number of Progressive reforms, including workmen's compensation, an eight-hour work day, and other types of social legislation.
A number of important reforms were implemented during Willis's administration as governor. The state revamped its road laws, made revisions to civil service, and implemented new liquor control laws. Willis was a strong leader. He called out the Ohio National Guard in 1916 to stop violence resulting from a steel strike in Youngstown, Ohio, and he mobilized troops once again to support American efforts to deal with Pancho Villa along the Mexican border. Willis was unsuccessful in winning reelection in 1916, when former governor Cox defeated him. He attempted to return to the governorship in 1918, but he was defeated once again.
Willis returned to Congress as a senator in January 1921, when Warren G. Harding resigned from his seat. As a senator, Willis was an outspoken isolationist. He opposed American membership in the League of Nations and supported a high tariff against exports into the United States. Willis was reelected as senator in 1926, but he also began to position himself to be a key player within the national Republican Party. Willis was still a senator when he died in Delaware, Ohio, on March 30, 1928. At the time of his death, the former governor was exploring the idea of running for president on the Republican ticket.
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- The Governors of Ohio. Columbus: The Ohio History Connection, 1954
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