RIP John H. Willis, Jr. (1929-2012)

July 22, 2012 • 10:38 am

If you didn’t go to The College of William and Mary (W&M), as I did, or live in Williamsburg, Virginia, you probably don’t know of John H. Willis, Jr.—everyone called him “Jack”—but he was an important figure in my life as well as a regular reader of this website. He never commented here, but emailed me from time to time about how much he liked the website’s combination of literature, philosophy, biology, and theology.  And his son, John Willis III, is a close friend of mine: a former grad student in my department and now a professor of biology at Duke. (I’m grateful to John III for details and photos.)

Jack died on June 29 in Richmond, Virginia.

Jack Willis was a professor of English at W&M, specializing in 20th-century literature.  (He wrote books on William Empson and Leonard and Virginia Woolf.) I never took one of his courses, but by all accounts he was a superb teacher, and won several awards.  After he retired ten years ago, he continued teaching in W&M’s adult education program, and told me that his adult students, having experienced much more of life, were more attentive and engaged by the material than were his earlier undergraduates.  His son John told me that when he visited a cheese store in Williamsburg, the owner told John how much he had enjoyed Jack’s course on Ulysses. It takes a lot to get a purveyor of cheese interested in that dense book!

I won’t recount the details of Jack’s life, for you can read about them in the obituaries in the William and Mary News and The Virginia Gazette.  I just want to briefly describe how I knew him.

Although a former Navy man, a natty dresser, and Associate Dean and Vice-President for Academic Affairs at a conservative Southern school, Jack was at heart a liberal and a nonbeliever. That was an unimaginable combination for an administrator at W&M. I first encountered him in the summer of 1969, when I was on an NSF undergraduate fellowship, doing research on fruit fly evolution in W&M’s biology department. I was also a “hippie,” at least insofar as that term applies to someone with strong academic ambitions.

During that summer the College hosted a meeting of “Boys State,” a youth organization sponsored by the conservative American Legion.  One of the scheduled events was a presentation by military men to the kids about the awesome advantages of joining the American military.  But that was during the Vietnam war, and I was a strong opponent of that war, deploring the unnecessary killing of Americans and Vietnamese. Several students and I decided to picket the presentation.  The Virginia State Police were called in and told us we had to leave the campus.  I told the beefy state trooper that I had a right to be on campus since I was officially doing research for the Biology Department.

That didn’t matter. The cop told me not only told me I had to leave campus or face arrest, but that he wanted to see me run off campus.  He said, “Boy, I want you off this campus in two minutes, and I want to see you run.” Such were the Virginia State Police. It was purely an exercise in power: they relished seeing me run away from them in terror.

At that moment Jack Willis walked up and asked the officer what was going on. The officer, drawing himself up, said that I was on campus illegally and then demanded of Jack, “And who might you be?”

Jack replied—and I’ll never forget this—”I’m dean of this college. And who might you be?”  The officer immediately became sheepish and apologetic, and let me stay on campus.

After that I would drop in on Jack from time to time in his offices in the administration building. I was a scruffy, bearded lad in blue jeans and a tee shirt, and Jack was, as always, dressed impeccably in coat and tie, his hair cropped short as befits a former Navy man.  We talked about a lot of things, but particularly the Vietnam war, the battle for civil rights, and the troubles afflicting the college (some of us tried to boycott classes during antiwar demonstrations in Washington D.C. or engage in other unsavory left-wing activities).  Jack was always sympathetic, and it meant so much to have a big-time administrator really listen to me rather than blow me off.  He always had time for a chat and a bit of bucking-up.

When I formed my four-person examining committee for my undergraduate honors thesis, I chose three biologists—and Jack.  It was highly unusual to have an English professor on a biology committee, but he certainly pulled his weight.  Jack had a lifelong interest in biology and the outdoors (see picture below), and thoroughly read my thesis and asked penetrating questions. The biology professors were impressed. (My work was on attempts to create sexual isolation between Drosophila strains in the lab; it was later published in Genetics.)

Although I didn’t keep in touch with Jack for many years, I knew what he was up to via his son John, and, when I started this website, I heard from Jack from time to time. I knew he enjoyed the site, and I have this last email from him, dated October 18, 2011.

Dear Jerry:

I believe you might come back for your 40th Reunion this weekend for Homecoming.  If so, I’d love to hear from you if you have a minute.

I’ll be home, and probably out clearing brush and gardening on Sat., but it would be great to get a call.

Home number:  [redacted]

John and Sue [John’s spouse] are just back from an amazing ten days in China, as you may know, all expenses paid by Beijing Normal University.  Anne [Jack’s wife] and I stayed with Emma and William [John and Sue’s kids] while they were away, and had a grand time.

Congratulations on your 40th.  You make me especially proud of William and Mary.

Best wishes !    Jack

However proud I made him of William and Mary, he made me prouder of him and my college. He was an extraordinary man, a superb teacher, and an empathic friend at a time when I needed support.  My sympathies go out to his family and many friends.  A good teacher is so rare, and a good teacher who will listen to students about nonacademic problems even rarer. I’ll miss Jack a lot, and since he was an avid reader of this site, I wanted to express my appreciation here for his presence in my life. His was a life lived to the fullest, replete with family, friends, and his beloved books.

Finally, here’s a photo of Jack taken at Mountain Lake Biological Station, a University of Virginia field station in the southwest part of the state. (Butch Brodie, director of the station, is married to Jack’s daughter Susan.) It perfectly expresses both Jack’s amiability and his love of the outdoors.

12 thoughts on “RIP John H. Willis, Jr. (1929-2012)

  1. Wonderful post. I really enjoyed your remembrances.

    Thanks for taking the time to express your appreciation of Jack and filling us in again on your past life. Every time I read these accounts of yours I’m reminded of how much we share in common.

  2. One of the professors on my doctoral committee once said, “We don’t teach the way we are taught to teach, we teach the way we were taught.”

    Your tribute to this educator reflects, to me, the fact that you took him on as a role model.

    Thank you for this posting, and thank you for the teacher YOU are. L

  3. Plain black tee-shirt, faded blue jeans, black leather belt, plain black cap. Liberal. Intelligent.

    My kind of guy. Great story.

  4. Thanks so much for sharing Jack’s story and your connection to him! It’s always uplifting to read about a great teacher!

  5. This kind of compassion; this kind of humane
    introspection – just one more reason I am
    proud to be associated with this website.

  6. That cop story is just perfect. So is the picture.

    What an enjoyable tribute to such an inspiring figure.

  7. I was a graduate student from a NY college and by some amazing stroke of luck was given Jack as my thesis advisor. I was passionate about Wallace Stevens and had done a lot of undergraduate work on him. At our introductory meeting Jack said I’ll be your advisor but I want you to do a comparison of the later poetry of Yeats and Stevens. I was unhappy — I knew Stevens, I didn’t know Yeats. Jack replied “that is precisely why you will want to do this. Besides I know a lot about Yeats and only a little about Stevens so we’ll be even.” He made my William and Mary experience the rich exploration it was. Although we lost touch, he remains one of most amazing people I’ve known. My deep sympathies to his family and close friends — I just read his obituary in the Winter W&M Alumni Magazine tonight. I’m so glad I found this blog and appreciate how it remembered him. He somehow to me represents even now the soul of W&M.

  8. I took two English classes with Prof. Willis at William & Mary in 1978 and 1979. His intellect, and his wit, were his hallmarks. I’m an academic myself now, and I think often of the example he set in the classroom, and in his office hours, when he engaged with students individually. No one had ever taken my ideas so seriously before, and yet his demeanor encouraged me to take myself perhaps a tad less seriously. Welcome advice.

    Thanks for posting this tribute. I’m sad to hear of his passing. My own daughter started W&M this fall, and I guess I was hoping I’d run into him sometime on the streets of Williamsburg.

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