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updated: 7/8/2014 10:16 AM

After tragedy, Willis family finds musical fame

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  • The Willis Clan competes on "America's Got Talent" in Newark, N.J.

      The Willis Clan competes on "America's Got Talent" in Newark, N.J.
    Courtesy of NBC

  • DANIEL WHITE/dwhite@dailyherald.com The Rev. Duane "Scott" Willis and his wife, Janet, in 2006.

      DANIEL WHITE/dwhite@dailyherald.com The Rev. Duane "Scott" Willis and his wife, Janet, in 2006.

 
Associated Press

Two decades after six children died in a van crash that led to the investigation and later corruption conviction of former Gov. George Ryan, the family's next generation is making a musical name for itself.

The 12 grandchildren of the Rev. Duane "Scott" Willis and Janet Willis have appeared on "America's Got Talent." They range in age from 3 to 22 and specialize in Irish music.

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The Willis family tragedy was at the center of Illinois politics in the 1990s. Now the Tennessee-based young members of "The Willis Clan" are earning a musical reputation. They are the children of Toby Willis, whose siblings died in the 1994 crash.

Toby Willis, 44, and his wife Brenda Willis, say the older Willis couple is "proud grandparents."

"I think they want to show people a positive side," Brenda Willis told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It's been very tragic and very negative over all these years. I think they're very excited about putting a positive spin on the story and showing the beautiful things that have come since then and how the family is strong and together and has been able to pick up the pieces and go on."

"The Willis Clan" has performed at the Grand Ole Opry and Disney World. They've also had a reality show called "The Willis Clan" on the Great American Country cable station.

The six Willis children died when a part fell off a truck, causing the November 1994 accident. Five years later a former trucking company official admitted he paid to fix the driver's license test. The family later received a $100 million settlement and Ryan served more than five years in prison for corruption.

Toby Willis keeps pictures of his lost brothers and sister in his home today. He said he doesn't hide the tragedy from his children.

"There's no way to hide that this is the way life is. That bad things happen and we want them to give them an accurate picture of how the world really is," Toby Willis said. "We don't shelter them."

Jennifer Willis, 19, has written a song in memory of her family members who died called "Road to Watertown."

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