Willie Ray Fairley

WGL 2021-Willie Fairley
Conrad Schmidt—AP Images for Dean's Dip
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  • Affiliation
    Willie Ray’s Q Shack

When Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was hit by a devastating, 100 mph–plus windstorm last August, Willie Ray Fairley lost electricity like everyone else in the city. But Fairley, the proprietor of Willie Ray’s Q Shack, had a refrigerator full of ribs, and within hours, amidst all the debris and downed trees, he was out grilling and serving them to his neighbors. In the following days, he loaded up his truck and started doing the same for people all over the city, delivering his free barbecue to the hardest-hit apartment complexes and neighborhoods. Even after power to the city had finally been fully restored, he didn’t stop: For another four weeks, as the city went about its slow, painful recovery, Fairley—who had felt powerless the last time Cedar Rapids experienced a major disaster, a flood in 2008—fed people for free. “I wanted to do something,” he says. “And I was in a position to help.” Fairley, who grew up in Mississippi, pitched in again and took his barbecue on the road when winter weather caused power outages that crippled much of Texas this February.

Fairley’s generosity may have cut into his profits, but it has endeared him to a community where he’s now a celebrated household name. (A billboard in Cedar Rapids encourages citizens to “Be a Willie,” and he’s been recognized by Discover, the credit card company, and actor Will Smith, among others.) In Iowa, in a year defined by the pandemic, disaster, and bitter political division, Fairley, who was recognized by Gov. Kim Reynolds in her annual January address, was the rare hero who transcended all that.