Willie Carroll Crockett Jr., the humorous and homespun Onancock resident whose seaboard paintings and well-told stories made him one of the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s celebrated artists, died on Monday, March 8. He was 82.
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Iris Morgan Crockett; five children, eleven grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and a legion of admirers who purchased and displayed his paintings, eagerly enrolled in the art lessons he offered, and enjoyed the rural philosophy for which he became known.
Even other artists marveled at Crockett’s remarkable talent, but it was his everyman demeanor and genuine likability that helped make him a living legend and a foremost Eastern Shore patriarch. Known simply as “Willie,” he seemed on a first-name basis with an entire region.
With his tall frame, gray beard, balding head and piercing eyes, Crockett cut a figure that would have looked at home as an old salt standing amid the gray skies and salt marsh featured in many of the coastal landscapes he painted since opening his Onancock gallery in 1969.
He also had a fondness for the written and spoken word, acting out scenes from Shakespeare with adults on his native Tangier Island during his youth, and writing poignant and humorous poetry that he would read for paying audiences later in life.
Crockett’s sheer artistic talent, Tangier accent, natural storytelling ability and grace of expression made him a darling of the media, with the late Salisbury, Maryland, television personality Scorchy Tawes once calling Crockett his favorite interview.
He was extensively profiled by news organizations and magazines, and on television shows. Earlier this year he was the subject of an hour-long documentary film.
Crockett also was known for his kindness, donating artwork by the armload to special causes and many times serving as the headliner of fundraising banquets, where Crockett would create one-of-a kind paintings, as attendees watched, to be sold for charity.
He managed it all without a shard of ego or pretense, humbly accepting praise and rarely talking about himself. Still, Crockett never rested on his success, diving headlong into projects and courses to further cultivate his talents and body of work.
Along the way, Crockett became the quintessential Eastern Shoreman who lived life on his own terms — hunting and fishing when he wanted, meeting guests at his gallery, enjoying a weekly card game, reading and studying in his easy chair, and painting some of the memorable and defining works of Eastern Shore coastal art.
Born Feb. 3, 1939, on Tangier Island to Willie Sr. and Nina Landon Crockett, he was heavily influenced by the community’s talented storytellers and religious bearing.
He went to a Bible college in South Carolina, taught for a year and lived on the West Coast for seven years, serving as a minister before a change of heart led to a change in lifestyle and location.
He left the ministry. Having always enjoyed sketching, he took art lessons, and moved back to the Eastern Shore to paint the solitude, nature and nuance of local life.
Along the way, Crockett became the embodiment of the talented Eastern Shore native who trades the prospect of fortune and fame elsewhere for the joys and simple pleasures of a small-town lifestyle on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.
He held in particular contempt urban life, anything involving what he called “the rat race,” and desk jobs of every stripe. He once said he could earn more living and selling his paintings in Washington D.C., but shuddered at the thought by dismissing it with a question: “Who wants to do that?”
In addition to his wife, Crockett is survived by his children, Carol Crockett (Tom Waller) of Exmore; Clark Crockett (Lisa) of Onley, Craig Crockett (Debbie Baylis) of Onley, Billy Crockett (Laura) of Parksley, and Julie Crockett of Greenbush.
Grandchildren include Beritt, Samantha, Dillon, Lucas, Jordan, Grayson, Olivia, Daisey, Will IV, Jasmine and Jesse.
Great-grandchildren include Jay, Damien and Sadie Kaye. Other survivors include numerous nieces, nephews, cousins and countless friends.
In addition to his parents, he was predeceased by a sister, Elizabeth June Crockett and her husband, Howard “Dee” Crockett; and a brother, Joshua Crockett, his wife, Mary Lou, and their son, Joshua David.
A service will be held on Sunday, March 21 at 2 p.m. at the Herbert Powell Memorial Park in Wachapreague, where the family has held many reunions over the years.
Memorial contributions, which will be used to fund a scholarship given in Crockett’s name, can be sent to the Willie Crockett Scholarship, care of Crockett Realty, P.O. Box 99, Onancock, VA 23417.
Memory tributes may be shared with the family at www.williamsfuneralhomes.com.
Arrangements by the Williams-Onancock Funeral Home.