What do the Prime Minister of New Zealand (Jacinda Ardern), perhaps the greatest quarterback to ever play football (Tom Brady), a singer-songwriter (Dollie Parton), a world-famous children’s cancer doctor (Dr. Ching-Hon Pui), and a bar-b-que cook from Cedar Rapids, Iowa have in common? All five made the Fortune Magazine list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders for 2021.
The bar-b-que cook is Willie Ray Fairley Jr., originally from George County, and the owner-operator of Willie Ray’s Q Shack.
While South Mississippi may experience hurricanes, Iowa and other mid-western states suffered a rare derecho, or straight-line windstorm as powerful as a hurricane on August 10, 2020. It leveled thousands of acres of corn fields, homes and businesses, knocking out electrical power for days in Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second largest city. Cedar Rapids, in the northeastern part of the state, is home to about 130,000 people.
“I had just gotten in a fresh shipment of meat,” Fairley recalls. He knew there was only one thing to do. He fired up his grill and began feeding the neighborhood, the homeless and the first responders.
“I just got on my bike,” he told a local magazine, “and started going around letting a few people know, ‘Hey, we got food if you need it.’” At one point he was giving away 400 meals a day.
His efforts blew up on social media. CNN picked up the story. Soon he had people from around the world calling to ask how they could help. He was recognized and interviewed by actor and musician Will Smith. Fortune Magazine put him at number 16 on its list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. Since then people from all across the country have stopped by his Q Shack to sample his ribs and his effusive personality.
While much of this generosity came out of his own pocket, he did receive recognition and a $25,000 grant from Discover, the credit card company.
Not bad for a kid from Benndale, Mississippi. His friends and family are not surprised.
Willie Ray, now 38, is the son of Shirley and Willie Ray Fairley, both Methodist ministers who are known throughout the community for their compassion and generosity, often taking food to local nursing homes and elderly people in need. Willie Ray Sr. is also known as “the Jelly Man”, making and distributing various Benndale native’s generosity leads title of Cedar Rapids BBQ hero kinds of jelly, especially mayhaw jelly, throughout the community each year.
“My father has always liked to cook, and my parents have always been very generous,” said Merinda Dickie, Willie Ray Jr’s sister. “That is just how we were raised. Willie Ray is just following in their footsteps.”
Willie Ray Jr. moved to Cedar Rapids in 2001, to live with his older brother, Derrick, who was going to school there. He liked the community and stayed, later working for Alliance Energy installing smart meters. Derrick has since moved on to Colorado.
“For me, the biggest adjustment was the cold,” he remembers. Cedar Rapids can see temperatures as low as 10 – 20 degrees below zero for a few days each year with inches to more than a foot of snow on the ground for weeks on end. Summers, like his Mississippi home, can be hot and humid.
Willie Ray had a dream, a secret dream. He loved to cook, and he wanted his own business.
“I made good money with the power company,” he said. “I saved until I could get a big grill.”
Cooking ribs, brisket, pulled pork and chicken the way Willie Ray does, does not just happen by throwing a piece of meat on a grill. It takes work and practice to perfect the craft, so the meat is falling off the bone tender, seasoned to perfection and the sauces are exactly right. Willie Ray spent five years going to local parks, sporting events and businesses with his grill, learning to cook for the public. In the late summer of 2019, he opened Willie Ray’s Q Shack, a 250 square foot take-out restaurant. He also packs up his truck, grill in tow, driving to local businesses for special employee events and catering public and private celebrations.
Willie Ray’s reputation and generosity is not confined to the Cedar Rapids area. In February of this year, Texas experienced a devastating ice storm, freezing up windmill generators across west Texas.
Four-and-a-half million people were left without power. Willie Ray did not hesitate. He packed up his grill and headed for the Lone Star State. There he handed out more than 1,600 meals in Dallas and Houston in a week’s time.
“A lot of people were coming up saying, ’Hey, you selling plates?’” he said. “Nah, it’s free,” Fairley replied. “When things happen, we want to pack up and go help.”
Back home in Cedar Rapids, Willie Ray often takes meals to nursing homes, care facilities and civic group fundraisers for free. When a local bank decided to recognize Willie Ray for his Fortune Magazine award by giving away 50 free bar-b-que meals, he matched that by giving away another 50.
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, in her annual State of the State address noted Iowa’s challenges in 2020 – the COVID-19 pandemic, the derecho and a very divisive political environment. In that address she also recognized Willie Ray Fairley Jr. as one who rose above all of that, serving his community and fellow Iowans.
“As I got older, I realized I always wanted to give,” he said. “I always talked about doing stuff for free and people said you can’t you can't make money doing stuff for free.