The Converse community mourns the passing of Dr. Jeff Willis, beloved Director of Archives and Special Collections, Andrew Helmus Professor of History Emeritus. Dr. Willis served Converse for fifty-three years, first as a faculty member and then as the Director of Archives and Special Collections. He died from complications of COVID-19.
“The quintessential gentleman scholar, Dr. Willis joined the Converse family in 1967 as a professor of history,” said Krista L. Newkirk, Converse president. “Some of the best stories I’ve heard from alumnae are about trips abroad with Dr. Willis and how he was known for even offering a bit of dating advice. Dr. Willis retired from the history department in 2005, but stayed on as our archivist and was a resource for Converse history. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, I would find Dr. Willis faithfully working in his office. His dedication to his work was unmatched. He quickly responded to any question I ever posed to him and I rarely stumped him.”
Converse Provost Jeffrey Barker added, “Dr. Willis helped us understand and preserve our history as the source of information for all things Converse. His professionalism, his dedication to our students and his colleagues, and his loyal service to the college are unmatched. He was and will remain one of the most respected and beloved members of the Converse community. He will be missed by all.”
Dr. Willis received his undergraduate education at Furman University and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in history from the University of Virginia. A confessed Anglophile, his fields of concentration were Modern European history, English history (with a special concentration upon Tudor and Stuart England), Irish history, and Russian history. He had a special interest in the history of the South Carolina Upcountry, especially the history of Spartanburg and Greenville. He taught history for a total of forty-four years. He came to Converse in 1967 and retired from the History Department in 2005 as the Andrew Helmus Distinguished Professor of History. He was co-founder of the Converse Fall Term in London, which he directed from 1970 to 2005. He was the recipient of the Katheryne Amelia Brown Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Spirit of Converse Award. In 2012 he was made an honorary alumnus of Converse. From 2005 until 2020 he served as the Director of Archives and Special Collections.
In remembering Dr. Willis, Dr. Joe P. Dunn, Charles A. Dana Professor of History and Politics and Chair of History and Politics, said, “He was a private man, a bit of an enigma, a man of decorum. The first time that I saw him in shorts, I gasped. Those who knew him only in later years probably don’t grasp the man who rode his bicycle 10 miles round trip to campus daily, who was a skier of sorts and a secret cook. There was ‘nothing’ that he did not know about British royalty or London. His humor was subtle, incisive; his timing in the classroom impeccable, his eccentricities cultivated. He was Mr. Chips and he only referred to himself as ‘Teacher.’ That is his legacy. Generations of students learned from him. I did as well.”
“Jeff Willis worked tirelessly to keep his teaching fresh, and his students adored him,” recalled Dr. Melissa Walker, George Dean Johnson, Jr. Professor of History Emerita.
“Jeff Willis worked tirelessly to keep his teaching fresh, and his students adored him.”
“When I came to Converse in 1996, he was learning to incorporate PowerPoint into his teaching,” Dr. Walker continued. “In fact, I believe he was the first professor at Converse to do so. He took great delight in using technology to bring images of art, architecture, and landscapes into his classroom. It was Jeff Willis who introduced me to the use of computer technology in teaching. For years, a highlight of my day was eating lunch in the company of Dr. Willis and other long-time faculty members in Gee Dining Hall. I’ll always be grateful for his generous collegiality and his wry sense of humor.”
Dr. Cathy Jones, Associate Professor of French and Italian and Co-Director of the Women’s Studies Program, shared her memories of Dr. Willis, including his attire, during their Converse study abroad trip to Martinique.“ Dr. Willis accompanied the first study abroad trip I took to Martinique,” she remembered. “He was a wonderful traveling companion. Unfailingly agreeable, he delighted in all of our activities, and added a great deal to our daily discussions. When he appeared at the airport, he was wearing an elegant white suit. Each day we were in Martinique, I noticed that a piece of his wardrobe had changed. By the end of our stay, he was wearing shorts, sandals, bright shirts and a bandanna topped by a straw hat. One of my favorite pictures from that trip features Jeff during a hike through a tropical forest. I was standing on a knoll when I took it, and all you see is greenery except for Jeff’s bandana and hat peeking above the trees. He loved seeing Caribbean petroglyphs, and, after his return to Spartanburg, he took to painting reproductions of them on large flat rocks that he found in his garden. I’ll really miss his gentle humor, kind manner and young heart.”
“Dr. Willis had an immeasurable impact on the lives of countless Converse alumnae,” reminisced Converse Board of Trustees Chair, Phyllis Perrin Harris ‘82. “He was a favorite professor with a sharp wit to match his deep intellect, and was truly one of the most gracious individuals to walk the grounds of Converse. He was loved by many and will be greatly missed.”
Dr. Willis was an avid collector of toy soldiers and of postcards and published A Postcard History of Spartanburg and several books and articles on local history, including A Pictorial History of Converse College, which featured photographs and stories of Converse and her students over 112 years. In addition to his photographic history books, Dr. Willis published numerous articles and essays on local history and also served as editor of The New Greenville Mountaineer and The Papers and Proceedings of the Greenville County Historical Society. He was also editor of The Drover’s Post, the newsletter of the Spartanburg County Historical Association, for many years. An in-demand speaker in the Upstate, Dr. Willis presented programs for countless organizations. He also wrote for the Hub City Writers’ Project. He was past president of the South Carolina Historical Association and the Spartanburg County Historical Society. In 2007 he received the South Carolina Governor’s Award in the Humanities.
If you would like to support Converse in memory of Dr. Willis, you can support the Jeffrey Willis Scholarship Endowment here. Select “other” under ‘I want to support’ and type in “Jeffrey Willis Scholarship Endowment.”
With his passing, Dr. Willis will leave a void at Converse and he will be remembered with much love and respect.