James Andrew Willingham

September 6, 1928December 28, 2020

James Andrew Willingham

9/6/1928 – 12/28/2020

Long time Car Dealer, Jim Willingham, died on Monday, December 28, 2020 at Eisenhower Hospital in Rancho Mirage, California.

He is survived by his wife Betty Jean Willingham (Baize) of 43 years and 6 of his 8 children… sons Scott Andrew Willingham, James Brent Willingham and Brad Alan Willingham and a predeceased daughter, Melinda Kay Willingham-Graves as well as Betty’s children, Michael Rowan, Jon Timothy Rowan and Rene Eloise Rowan (Fox-Hill) and a predeceased daughter, Theresa Louise Rowan (Fleischli Scofield). Together they have 16 grandchildren.

He will be buried at Westminster Memorial Park in a family plot that he purchased in 1967, where his parents, W.F. Willingham and Deanie Vera Willingham (Chatoney) and his Sister-in-Law, Peggy Willingham, are buried.

Born in Risco, Missouri Jim was one of 9 children born to Norma and Rev. Wesley Frank Willingham, a Baptist minister. He served in Marine Air Corps and was trained as an aerial radio gunner at the end of WWII. Thankfully, the war ended as he got to California for his training. He returned to Missouri and went to the University of Missouri on a football scholarship and the help of the GI bill. Studying to become a geologist, he again visited California to look for opportunities with Texaco and Union. He was badly injured in the knee and ankle on the football field the following year but, had met a girl from Long Beach who was attending Stevens (an all-girls school, also in Columbia, MO). He followed her out to California and started selling shoes to earn a living.

Long time Long Beach car dealer, Ed James, frequented the store and told Jim, the real money is in selling cars and hired Jim at his Studebaker dealership in 1950. He later worked for Masters Pontiac, C. Stanlee Martin Oldsmobile and eventually was hired as a General Manager at Campbell Buick on American Avenue. In February of 1961, he became a partner him and the store changed the name to Boulevard Buick.

Jim married Mary Helen Durkee from Long Beach in 1950.

Jim enjoyed a lot of success throughout the 60’s and 70’s and would eventually operate franchises for Jaguar, MG, Triumph, Rover, Saab, Lincoln-Mercury, Rolls-Royce, Ferrari, Subaru and Sterling. In the 90’s, struggling to stay afloat during a downturn in the local Long Beach economy, he merged with long-time friend and competitor, Mike Salta, who now owned the Pontiac store down the street, and moved to the brand-new Signal Hill Auto Center.

Jim was always involved in Long Beach civic organizations… Memorial Hospital, the Boys & Girls Clubs, Boy Scouts, Chamber of Commerce, United Way, Red Cross and, of course, Long Beach Rotary, where he was President in 1974. He also was a tireless supporter of his industry and ‘gave back’ by serving on the boards (often becoming Chairman/President) of Long Beach (Southland) Motor Car Dealers Association, California Dealer Association, and eventually, NADA – the National Automobile Dealer Association. He would lead that as Chairman in 1999.

He was frequently called out for his achievements in his industry and community involvement. He won the Time Dealer of the Year award in 1984 (national winner) and many other franchise or industry awards. He also found time to start a bank (Harbor Bank with long-time friend and former car dealer, Jim Gray), Director’s Life Insurance Company, a LAX parking service Auto Airporter, to name a few. When the Grand Prix of Long Beach needed a volunteer organization, Jim was the 1st ever President of the Committee of 300. Long Beach recognized him for his lifetime contributions to the community by making him Citizen of the Year in 1977 and Humanitarian of Year in 1988.

Jim remarried Betty Jean Rowan (Baize) in 1977 and they have had a fabulous 43-year relationship. Jim was one of the longest-running amateur players in the Bob Hope Desert Classic golf tournament and they entertained many A-List celebrities at their Indian Wells home for over 30 years. They also enjoyed a home in Lake Arrowhead, California. Jim was an avid golfer and was a member of Virginia Country Club in Long Beach, Indian Wells Country Club and Lake Arrowhead Country Club. Betty was by his side as he quietly passed in the hospital.

It was a fabulous 92 year run, and he showed everyone how to live, achieve and contribute like no other.

A graveside service for James will be held Sunday, January 17, 2021 from 2:15 PM to 3:15 PM at Westminster Memorial Park, 14801 Beach Blvd, Westminster, CA 92683.

Due to State and Local Mandate regarding COVID-19, only a limited number of people are permitted to attend. Please call for further information.


  • Graveside Service

    Sunday, January 17, 2021


James Andrew Willingham

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