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Beloved "Uncle Willie" Wiggins Passes Away; Leaves Imprint on Many
Tom Thebault reflects on the passing of a life-long employee and friend
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Longtime Astro Amusement Company unit manager and concessionaire Willie Wiggins passed way March 25, 2019, at the age of 70. Funeral services were held March 30 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Elgin.

Born in Georgia on Nov. 5, 1948, Wiggins lived in the Chicago area for most of his life, ending up in Elgin during his later years. He came from a family of six siblings, and he was married to the late Karen Wiggins for 25 years.

Wiggins got his start in the amusement industry as a teenager when he began working for Arthur Lampkin, building and moving bumper cars. He had met Dennis Konkey around Atlanta in 1970, and decided to join a show, Graffen Amusements, with Dennis. The company was later purchased by Steve Thebault in 1973, and renamed Astro Amusement Company. Wiggins decided to stay on when the company was purchased.

“Two of the workers decided to stay on with us, Dennis Konkey and Willie, and they were great friends,” shares Tom Thebault, son of Steve and current general manager of Astro Amusement Co. (North American Midway Entertainment). “Willie's dedication to my family and the company was excellent. My dad bought the show not knowing who he was or what he was about. Willie and Dennis worked for the show for 45 years or longer, and they were the backbone of our show for all those years.”

Wiggins continued to work for Astro Amusement until 2018. He was affectionately called “Uncle Willie” by many who knew him and was also said to be a mentor in the industry. Thebault says that while his own father taught him how to manage the carnival, in many ways it was Wiggins who taught him how to keep things running. 

“I have a lot of great memories with Willie,” he says. “I grew up with him.”

Though there are many fond memories of Wiggins, there is one that stands out the most in Thebault's memory. One time Thebault and his friend Robert Leonard were hanging out with Willie, as they often wanted to do – because he was “cool Uncle Willie.”

“We were hungry and wanted to get something to eat,” Thebault reminisces. “But Willie said no, he wanted to cook us something. He broke out pork chops, yellow rice, corn and sweet tea – which he loved. Thanks to Willie, we ate like kings that day. But that's Willie. He enjoyed company and he loved to cook. That memory has been burned into my mind.”

Wiggins had a variety of memorable character traits, including the fact that he may have appeared to be intimidating at first glance. 

“He was very muscular and stout,” Thebault says. “Over the years on our show, his feats of strength became almost legendary. But even though he looked intimidating, he was also a gentleman, a people person and a teddy bear when you got to know him.”

Dennis had witnessed Wiggins pick up a V8 engine and set it in the back of someone's trunk. On another occasion, he was said to have balanced the center of a Tilt-A-Whirl on his shoulders; he was also known to hoist any piece of track on the trailer by himself. It's estimated he moved or helped move the Tilt-A-Whirl more than 700 times.

Wiggins was an entrepreneur. He owned his own kiddie ride and ran a novelty stand with his wife. He was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and some of his hobbies included fishing and music. Wiggins also enjoyed rock n' roll and the blues; he even played a little guitar.

“Willie enjoyed fishing, he loved it,” says Thebault. “He used to come with our family and go fishing in Florida over Christmas – he and Dennis were like family to us – they'd come to Marco Island on Christmas vacation. Many people didn't know he was also a pretty good singer and he didn't mind belting out a few every now and then.”

One of the biggest things about Wiggins, Thebault says, was that everyone had a deep respect for him. He was a relatable and generous person who would happily share his time and knowledge with others.

Case in point – Thebault shares how he recently spoke with a welding shop owner who was also a Scout master. Twenty-five to thirty years previously, a group of Scouts had met Willie on a Scouting trip to the carnival. He had showed them the ins and outs of carnival set-up and inspecting. He'd made such an impression on them, that many years later, with kids of their own, the same Scouts came back to the Scout master and asked how Willie was doing.

“They told him that one of their best memories with Scouts was meeting Willie and learning how to do all that stuff he showed them,” Thebault says. “But that's how it was. Anybody who met Willie remembered Willie.“He would take the time to help you and teach you what he knew,” Thebault continues. “A lot of people at his funeral all had the same story about him – he taught me this, he taught me that. That was his legacy. Willie's best legacy was his generosity.”
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