The co-founder of J&J Foods in Gainesville was described Thursday as a "visionary," an "inspiration" and "a man of wisdom and integrity."
Johnnie Wiley died Thursday morning after being hospitalized since Christmas night following a heart attack, friends said.
"Mr. Wiley was so well thought of in the community it was just unbelievable," said State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, who was a friend of Wiley.
Before establishing his own store, Wiley was involved in the grocery business since age 12, owning two previous stores.
He began the grocery store in 1976, along with his brother-in-law Junior Reece who has since died, after two years of operating Holiday Supermarket in Oakwood.
The business was essentially started from scratch. Along with his co-founder, Wiley purchased Warehouse Foods in Gainesville, renamed it J&J Foods and began a much larger operation than his previous store.
After a slow start, Reece sold his share of the company, leaving Wiley as the sole owner. But it wasn't long after that the business began to grow and in 2000 added a store in Dahlonega, and in 2005 added another location in Gainesville.
"The success of his business has been phenomenal and it's because of the personal commitment that he had to his customers," Miller said.
Wiley's ability to run a successful business, as well as his management of employees, spread far and wide throughout the business community.
"Mr. Wiley and his family exemplify what business owners should be to their church, their family, their community and their customers," Miller said.
Wiley's grocery store ownership wasn't limited to J&J Foods, either. He helped his other brother-in-law, Verlin Reece, establish Quality Foods based in Commerce.
"He was a quiet, soft-spoken man of great qualities," Verlin Reece said. "He just kept things very simple and was very encouraging and taught you basic truths about life."
"He gave people opportunity upon opportunity and believed in people," he added.
Despite J&J's slow start, the store has become a contender in a time when small-chain grocery stores find it hard to compete with larger businesses.
"He wanted to provide the best quality pricing, goods and services to the community that he possibly could and wanted people to be appreciated in their shopping," Verlin Reece said. "He treated his employees with appreciation but expected any and all of us to contribute at our best."
Eventually Wiley's son, Darrell Wiley, took over the business and currently serves as president and CEO.
"It was a joyous experience to pass the baton to his son," said the Rev. Bart McMillan, pastor of Pine Crest Baptist Church in Gainesville where the Wileys attended.
"We were very close. I consider him as a blessing and as a father figure for me," added McMillan, who is also the chaplain for J&J Foods.
Friends also recalled the generosity of Wiley and his wife Arrie Mae toward the community.
"The biggest thing about Johnnie was he was inclusive," McMillan recalled. "He allowed people to be a part of him and his family. Johnnie had the gift of giving."
"I never heard Johnnie say a harsh word to or about anyone," he added.
Friends said Johnnie Wiley helped many people in a variety of ways, including providing food, shelter, clothes and even second chances.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, he sent two tractor-trailers full of food to provide for storm victims.
His many commitments include being a member on several local boards such as Gainesville Care Center, Truett-McConnell College and Chattahoochee Baptist Association.
He also played a large role in establishing the local YMCA, as well as providing scholarships to area students and supporting scholarships at Belmont University, where the Johnnie Wiley Music Scholarship is named in his honor.
Among the many organizations Johnnie Wiley volunteered time for was Helping Hands Foreign Missions in Gainesville where he helped provide food and shelter to orphans in Bolivia.
"Since Helping Hands was formed, Mr. Johnnie and Mrs. Arrie Mae have been partners in our ministry and have been very encouraging and very supportive of all we do," said Stan Bell, executive director of the ministry.
"We consider them as a vital part of this ministry," Bell added.
Mason & Ward Funeral Home in Gainesville is handling arrangements, but service plans are incomplete.