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'Willie Boats' founder dies of brain tumor

Willie Illingworth, the one-handed man who invented the aluminum McKenzie River driftboat that eventually made Medford the hub of the riverboat industry, died Tuesday at his Medford home after a two-year bout with cancer.

Illingworth, who owned Willie Boats in Medford and who was known among the boat industry simply as "Willie," was 64.

Illingworth died at 12:20 p.m. surrounded by a handful of friends and two of his three sons, said Jim Bittle, Willie Boats' general manager, who was one of those present.

"He was struggling to breathe, then he got this real peaceful tone and just slipped away," said Bittle, who has spent 23 years with Illingworth at Willie Boats.

Diagnosed with a brain tumor in January 2005, Illingworth had gone through a series of chemotherapy treatments that ended less than three weeks ago, Bittle said.

The gruff-talking, hard-playing Illingworth was the public face of the aluminum driftboat industry he helped launch 35 years ago in Medford.

Illingworth was a part-time guide in 1971 when he built the first aluminum McKenzie River driftboat. Before then, driftboats were made exclusively from wood.

Illingworth turned to aluminum as a lighter and more durable material than wood for driftboats in part because he wanted something easier to row.

Having lost his left hand in an explosives accident as a child, Illingworth rowed boats by using a leather strap lashed to his wrist and the oar.

A legendary innovator and charmed salesman known as much for his wild living as his popular boats, Illingworth created the boat style that now is the standard among river anglers throughout North America and beyond.

"It's the end of an era," said Buzz Ramsey, a tackle industry icon and longtime friend of Illingworth. "The big guy's going to be missed."

Illingworth is survived by three sons, Will, Matt and Mark.

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. April 6 somewhere along the upper Rogue River, but the exact location is not yet set, Bittle said.

Illingworth threw himself a going-away party Jan. 27 in Medford for about 300 friends.

Illingworth previously made arrangements for his body to be cremated. His ashes will be placed in 75 glass vials he personally ordered late last year. Illingworth asked that his ashes go to friends who can take them fishing.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Willie Illingworth and Chuck Yeager.