Thomas Middlebrook Willis, attorney, judge, and early citizen of Abilene, Texas, was born on June 27, 1859, in Bainbridge, Decatur County, Georgia. He was the son of Thomas L. Willis, a physician, and Letitia Barnett (Hutchison) Willis. In 1866 Thomas L. Willis moved his family from Alabama to Waco, McLennan County, Texas, and later to Weatherford, Parker County, Texas, where he began his medical practice. The Willis family eventually settled in Denton County, Texas, in 1872.
Thomas Middlebrook Willis traveled to the Abilene area in 1878 from Denton County to check out range possibilities. He spent several weeks at the ranch of James Couts and John Simpson, old friends of his father. Willis graduated from the law school at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, on January 18, 1883. That same year he moved to Abilene, Texas, the year that town became the Taylor County seat, and opened a law office on the west side of Chestnut Street. Thomas Middlebrook Willis married Sallie Ann Parker on June 16, 1886, at the First Presbyterian Church of Abilene, where they were members. The couple built a house at South Seventh and Poplar streets. Thomas and Sallie had eight children: Sallie, John, Robert, Neva, Charles, Thomas, Maggie, and Roberta.
In 1885 Willis served as president of the newly-organized literary and debating society of Abilene. The following year, he was elected the city attorney and later served as the city judge. An item on Abilene in the Galveston Daily News on May 21, 1886, noted: “The new city attorney, Thomas M. Willis, is creating quite a stir among the gamblers and lewd women of our city. He is enforcing the ordinances relative to gambling, and intends to put down gaming. It is now thought and expressed by some that the sporting class have run their race in Abilene. Eleven soldiers and as many gamblers were arrested to-day, and will appear in the City Court to-morrow.” In 1887 Willis served as Taylor County’s delegate to the “State Non-Political Prohibition Convention” held that year in Waco. In 1907 he was elected as the city recorder of Abilene. Willis was a charter member of the Taylor County Bar Association.
In 1934 the Texas Bar Association honored two Abilene attorneys who had received their licenses to practice law at least fifty years earlier. Those two Abilene attorneys were Fred Cockrell and Thomas M. Willis. On March 15, 1937, the Abilene Reporter-News gave a dinner and public reception on Abilene’s fifty-sixth birthday, and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas M. Willis were among those honored in “grateful recognition of the labors of the First Citizens and Founders of Abilene.”
On November 27, 1937, Thomas Middlebrook Willis passed away at his home in Abilene. He had been in failing health for two years, but his condition had worsened a little more than a week prior to his death. He was buried in Abilene’s Masonic Cemetery. According to local and family tradition, Willis Street in Abilene was named in honor of Thomas Middlebrook Willis. A Texas Historical Marker was erected in his honor in Abilene in 2008.