Longtime Greater Des Moines attorney William Lillis died today after suffering a heart attack in early March, his law partners confirmed. He was 76.

Lillis was described as someone who had touched nearly every real estate deal in Polk County. Most recently, he was busy with other partners in the Lillis O’Malley law firm negotiating many of the details of the future of Merle Hay Mall, the state’s first shopping center, which is located in Des Moines and Urbandale.

“Merle Hay Mall has been a longtime client,” said law partner Daniel Manning. His work there “is a perfect example of Bill’s ability to bring Urbandale, Polk County and Des Moines together to assist the client.”

Liz Holland, whose grandfather developed Merle Hay Mall (called Merle Hay Plaza at the time), said Lillis was "working for the other side" a local bank that sought the shared goal of a stoplight along the east side of the mall and was so effective she asked him to come to work for her.

Lillis was the key to getting an urban renewal area established in the mall neighborhood, which led to a tax increment financing package at a time "when I was trying to bring the mall into the 21st century," Holland said.

"He was my lawyer, my senior executive, my general counsel, my friend," she said. "The hallmark of a good lawyer is someone who can keep a lot of balls in the air at the same time, and nobody could do that better than Bill, and I've worked with New York lawyers and Chicago lawyers. I come from a family of lawyers, I'm a lawyer, my father was a great lawyer, but Bill was the best.

"He was as smooth as a gravy sandwich. You want your lawyer to solve your problems; you don’t want one who creates problems."


Eugene Olson, a longtime friend and law partner at Lillis O’Malley, said acquaintances today described Lillis as a “warrior.”

The refrain “that must have been something Lillis worked out” has echoed in city halls across the region.

Lillis arrived in Des Moines as an assistant Polk County attorney, and by the early 1970s he had joined the law firm that was created in 1917 by another real estate expert, John Connolly Jr. He counted Connolly's son, John Connolly III, as a mentor and told Business Record sister publication dsm last year that he learned from John Connolly III to “work hard, keep your head on straight, be honorable always, and never burn bridges because in this work you will circle back and deal with these people again.”

The comment came in an article after Lillis was named a dsm Sage over 70 in 2018.

At the time, Lillis also said, “I always have been in love with this city. My wife and I are real advocates for Des Moines.”

He described Des Moines as a boom town, and he would have known.

Olson was recruited by Lillis and O’Connor, who determined the firm needed an extra attorney. At the time, 1975, Olson was an attorney specializing in real estate for the city of Des Moines. Lillis and O’Connor hired the guy they had been “tangling with the most” at City Hall, Olson said. Olson also had attended law school with Lillis.

Olson said he and Lillis reminisced recently that they had been involved in real estate deals on virtually every block of downtown Des Moines.

Anawim Housing was among his many affiliations.

“He truly loved the work and mission of Anawim Housing,” Anawim President Russ Frazier said. “Thousands of people have a place to call home today because of Bill Lillis.” 

Frazier considered Lillis a mentor.

“I would say that Bill had a grace and compassion like no other. From his dry wit to his amazing recall of seemingly every real estate transaction to ever occur in Polk County, he was a person you wanted to be with and listen to,” Frazier said.