John Willey, longtime owner of Johnnie’s Fresh Meat Market, died Wednesday after a long illness, family members said.
The business, a staple at Charleston’s Capitol Market, has been family-owned and operated since Willey bought it from John Alessio, the first Johnnie, in 1972. Willey, 82, died Wednesday morning at Hubbard Hospice House in Charleston.
Willey retired from the family business in 1992 and sold it to his stepson, John Craddock. He continued to help out at the shop, which now is owned by his stepdaughter, Lisa Surface.
Krisene Stanley, Willey’s granddaughter and Johnnie’s Meat Market manager, said Willey would come in on Mondays to check up on the store. He and his wife of 37 years, Doris Willey, still did the laundry for the store.
“We tried to keep everything the way he did it,” Stanley said. “Everything we learned, we learned from him.
“This is his legacy. This is what he worked for. Johnnie’s was his life. He worked hard all his life.”
Raised in the Garrison Avenue area of Charleston, Willey served as a cook in the Army. When he returned to West Virginia he worked a few odd jobs before getting hired at McCown and Sons Meat Packing where he learned the trade.
“He did everything there, but he was a really good salesman,” Stanley said.
He bought Johnnie’s Midget Market, located on Washington Street East at the foot of the 35th Street Bridge, from John Alessio in 1972. Alessio had run the business since 1950 when he sold to Willey.
Willey moved the business in 1974 to Iowa Street on the city’s West Side after it grew out of its Washington Street location.
“He ran a great business there,” Stanley said. “He had great employees, was good to the community.”
He retired from the butchering business in 1992 and took up a job with the City of Charleston, she said, but continued to help out. Craddock moved the business in 1997 to Capitol Market where it expanded to include sandwich service. Surface took over in 1999.
Stanley said the store has been seeing more traffic since Sandy Creek Farms store and processing facility in Jackson County burned in February. The business posted on their website that they would not rebuild. Stanley said Johnnie’s would begin selling more organic meat products in the coming weeks.
“He still had a lot of say-so in the business,” Stanley said. “He always had a part in it.”
He had time after retirement for his hobbies — gardening, hunting and writing. Stanley said he started writing when he got older, mostly about himself. She recalled typing up what he’d written about himself as John the butcher and his time in the military.
“He just had so many layers of life,” she said. “It was amazing what this man could do.”
He underwent surgery for congestive heart failure in 1997. He had been battling the illness for many years when he died Wednesday.
“He knew it was the end for him,” Stanley said. “He’d struggled for a long time and he’d been dealing with it so long.
“It’s super sad and I hate that I won’t get to see him coming in here every Monday anymore.”
Willey is survived by wife Doris, seven daughters, two sons and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A private family service will be held Saturday.
The store will be closed Saturday in memory of Willey, Stanley said, but will be open Friday and Sunday.
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at email@example.com or 304-348-4850.