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Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019

Willis the Bear 18 Years Later

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Gift bear service gets a makeover

Connor Bryson doesn’t actually remember his claim to fame in Shreveport. After all, he was just a baby – but what a cute one he was!

Willis was “born” in 2001 as the first bear was delivered on Mother’s Day that year. With Willis-Knighton having labor and delivery services at three suburban locations, it seemed a perfect time to promote that service and Willis as an exclusive gift to babies. When asked to promote the plan, the health system’s marketing department began searching for a baby to help introduce Willis the Bear. A smiling baby boy was “discovered” at the day care center at First United Methodist Church. The rest is Willis the Bear and Connor Bryson history.

Connor was an easy choice, and not just for his winning smile. His mother, Stephanie, was a popular dietitian at Willis-Knighton, so keeping the promotional baby in the WK family just made sense. Connor’s fame ranged from billboards to newspaper and magazine ads as well as flyers.

Playing on the “Free Willie” whale movie that was popular at the time, the headline read, “Free Willis (baby included).”

The campaign was used for several years, and Connor was reminded of it with keepsakes from his parents, Stephanie and Gene, and his grandparents, Charlotte and Gene Bryson.

Connor and his family now live in Texas, where his father, formerly a Shreveport attorney, is now a minister at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church after training at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.

Connor says he’s had fun showing friends the photos of himself on billboards – but it’s likely that without the visuals his Texas buddies would never have identified this tall, charming teen as the baby on the billboards.

Giving a gift to babies is fairly typical for hospitals, but Margaret Elrod, a senior vice-president at the health system, wanted something unique for babies born at Willis- Knighton. Willis owes his origins to a Christmas shopping trip in a local mall in 1999 where Elrod and her husband were shopping. They spied a cuddly plush bear featured as a special Christmas item in a retailer’s shop.

“Seeing that endearing bear inspired me to pursue creating a special bear for WK’s new moms – something they and their babies could love and treasure for many years while evoking happy memories of their experience at Willis- Knighton,” she explained.

After much research and development with meticulous trial and error, Willis the Bear made his debut some 18 months later.

Willis was “born” with the help of a representative from a vendor used by the health system’s gift shops and the support of Rhonda MacIsaac, who was health system community relations manager at the time. Later production of the bears was moved to a local specialty vendor in WK’s spirit of keeping as much purchasing local as possible. Although several prototypes were developed, the final one was a curly-haired bear, small, soft and fluffy with a perky plaid bow. Everyone agreed he was a handsome addition to the WK family and something the health system would be proud to give to new babies.

Fast forward 18 years and thousands of bears later, and things have changed, though not as dramatically as Connor’s appearance. The previous manufacturer of Willis went out of business, and a new one had to be identified. It seemed the right time for a makeover for Willis, so the process began of nipping, tucking and enhancing. The makeover took months, and, in the meantime, as locations ran out of bears, the new mothers were given a certificate that can now be redeemed for the new Willis.

Today’s Willis is just as endearing as the original, and babies are sure to snuggle and love this one as much as the now-teens loved the originals. While there was some thought that Connor could make a reprise of his role to promote the new bear, somehow “Free Willis (teenager included)” just didn’t seem nearly as appealing.

– Special to 318 Forum

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