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9 Who Care: Willie Ray Fairley gives hot meal to hundreds after derecho

Published: Jan. 25, 2021 at 4:28 AM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - One year, one month, and four days after Willie Ray Fairley opened Willie Ray’s Q Shack, the derecho blew across eastern Iowa, ripping apart homes and leaving thousands in the dark for days.

“I thought I was in a hurricane, I’m from Mississippi, seeing a hurricane, and I’ve been through them,” said Fairley. “It was like a dream that you just couldn’t wake up out of, and it was a blessing to make it through it.”

Fairley was driving back to Cedar Rapids, headfirst into the storm, not knowing if his Q Shack would still be standing.

“I thought the building would have been flat, on its side,” Fairley said. “But it so happened that it was still standing strong.”

Once safe inside the building, he had an idea. He had a lot of ribs from a recent food order, and didn’t want to see it go to waste. He fired up his grills, and started to feed people, for free.

“I did the smallest thing that I could do, was feed a few people. And a few people turned into thousands of people.”

He kept feeding people, hundreds per day for weeks, closing his regular restaurant for a month and a half, and sharing what he could to people who had lost so much. Eric Knox spoke to TV9 on August 18, and said he was supporting Fairley with donations for how he helped.

“We had no gas grill, no nothing, charcoal was hard to find, it was great to have that free meal,” Knox said last summer.

Margaret Pavao, from Vinton, nominated Fairley. She saw how her friends and family were touched by his willingness to drop everything and help.

“At a time when everyone was so lost and having such a hard time, he was just this beacon of light that came through and gave people hope,” Pavao said.

Joe Sample has lived in Cedar Rapids his whole life, and through the pandemic, has spotlighted local restaurants on social media. That’s how he first met Fairley. After the derecho, Sample helped him distribute meals.

“Just to see people’s faces that were getting the free food, you could tell it was appreciated and Willie is appreciated very much now in the community,” Sample said.

Fairley’s non-stop kindness earned him statewide recognition during the governor’s condition of the state.

“Willie Ray didn’t just fill hungry stomachs, he fed his sense of community, and that’s what makes a disaster bearable,” Gov. Reynolds said during the condition of the state.

Through a plate of food, Fairley is sharing his love of good BBQ.

“Oh I love it,” Fairley said. “It makes me feel like I’m at home. It’s something that I know how to do, and I feel like I’m really good at it.”

“To see a community come together like that, it’s really heartwarming, and it shows the true nature of human beings that there is great people out there and the nature shined through during the derecho,” said Sample.

“It’s about coming together, and having that togetherness, and I think he did that, he did it with a meal, he did it with a smile, he did it with such grace and dignity,” Pavao said.

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