As gas prices hit record highs across the United States, Americans are feeling the sting. Willie Wilson is trying to ease the financial burden for as many people as he can reach.
The 73-year-old Chicago-based businessman is giving away gas to local motorists. Initially, he pledged to donate $200,000 – offering drivers $50 gas cards at several stations on March 17 – but given the overwhelming demand, he is contributing an additional $1,000,000 to the effort.
“I hate to see people in this situation,” said Wilson, who owns a medical supply company and produces a gospel music television program called “Singstation.”
Wilson has also run unsuccessfully for multiple elected offices, including mayor of Chicago, senator from Illinois and, in 2016, president of the United States.
Wilson – who said the high gas tax in Chicago is contributing to surging prices – watched anxiously as numbers rose sharply at pumps across the city. Gas prices were soaring from the market’s response to Russia’s assault on Ukraine, compounded by sanctions and the Biden administration’s move to ban Russian oil imports entirely.
The businessman recognized the dire effect the high prices would have on those in a less stable financial situation than him.
“I figured if I’m complaining about it myself, and people don’t necessarily have the income that I have, then maybe I need to do something about it,” said Wilson, who was raised in Louisiana as the son of a sharecropper and didn’t attend school past the seventh grade. “I decided that I wanted to do this and help some people out.”
Wilson, a self-made man, began his career in Chicago in 1965 when McDonald’s hired him as part of the cleaning crew. He worked his way up until he eventually became manager and later opened a franchise. A smart businessman, he bought and sold five restaurants and launched a path for himself in politics and philanthropy.
He promoted the first gas giveaway on social media, inviting Chicagoans to fill up their cars with $50 worth of free fuel on March 17 at one of 10 locations – all of which agreed to temporarily lower their prices.
According to AAA, the average price of regular gas in Chicago that day was $4.84 per gallon. A year ago, it was $3.28 a gallon.
Knowing there would be a major turnout, Wilson hired 100 people to work at the stations for $15 an hour to distribute gas cards and help fuel the hundreds of cars that lined up first thing in the morning. Wilson, as well as dozens of volunteers, pumped gas for several hours, too.
“This is a team effort,” he said.
Although the free fill-up spurred major traffic jams, the initiative was mostly well-received, and Wilson said the overwhelming crowd of cars that day highlighted the desperate need for more financial aid.
Wilson’s initial Facebook post announcing his donation was flooded with comments. While some lamented the chaos and congestion his efforts caused, others praised him for his generosity.
“I got my full tank of gas,” one person commented. “Appreciate you!!!”
Another Facebook user wrote, “I congratulate and appreciate that you cared enough to act.”
Wilson said he heard from countless people expressing thanks.
“They’re trying to make a living, get to work and take care of their families,” he said.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Wilson has donated more than 30 million face masks to the Cook County Jail, Chicago firefighters and the Fraternal Order of Police as well as dozens of health-care facilities, nursing homes and community organizations. He has also contributed $1,000,000 to support people who lost their jobs because of the covid-19 crisis.
In February 2019, as a candidate in the mayoral election, Wilson handed out thousands of dollars to help Chicagoans pay their property taxes.
Wilson’s charitable efforts have sometimes led to criticism that he is pandering for political gain, but he said soliciting votes is not his goal in giving back.
“You get criticized for doing good; you get criticized for doing bad. So I say, let them criticize me for doing good,” Wilson said during a news conference.
He said he wants to use his success to make life a little easier for others.
“I’m not a politician. I’m a businessman,” Wilson told The Washington Post, confirming that he is not currently running for office. His past political efforts of him, he added, were “strictly to help the citizens.”
When he saw how many people didn’t get the chance to receive gasoline during his first giveaway, he decided to top his original donation with $1,000,000 at a second giveaway.
This time, to mitigate congestion and reach more people, he is offering $50 fill-ups at 50 service stations across Cook County, and he has hired 250 workers to help run it.
Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, the Chicago Police Department and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office also said they’d send people to help traffic flow.
It will start at 7 am Thursday and go on until the $1,000,000 has been spent. All participating gas stations agreed again to discount their prices for the morning.
Khalil Abdullah, who owns several gas stations in the Chicago area, is planning to lower his rate by about 30 cents per gallon.
“We welcome this kind of generosity,” he said, adding that he had lost count of how many customers have told him that the high prices have led to hardship. “I think everybody needs this kind of break.”
Wilson said he feels fortunate he’s in a position to lend a hand.
“The need is great, and I want to help,” he said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done.”