Many campuses have that one standout “legend”: someone who has seen the people, the landscape and the trends of a community change from decade to decade. For Converse College, that someone was Dr. Jeffrey Willis, Director of Archives and Special Collections and Andrew Helmus Professor of History Emeritus.
Dr. Willis was an intensely private man whose tender, purposeful way of speaking could capture anyone’s attention – his sessions at Converse’s on-campus reunions were always standing room only. During the last five decades, Dr. Willis has been an inspiration and a friend to Converse faculty, staff and students.
Read more about Dr. Willis from the people who knew him best.
From Dr. Jeff Barker:
“Dr. Jeffrey R. Willis, Jr., the Andrew Helmus Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, was one of the most respected and beloved members of the Converse faculty, serving Converse as a full-time member of the faculty from 1967 to 2005. That is longer than some of our faculty and most of our students have lived. During that time he made a lasting impact on the lives of generations of Converse students.
“Dr. Willis was a model teacher, a scholar whose elegant style graces numerous publications, and above all he was a gentleman.”
After he retired from full-time teaching, he continued to teach on occasion, including in a Study-Travel course in January 2007, when he took students to England. After all these years, I do not think I am violating confidentiality by including an excerpt from my letter to Dr. Willis regarding that 2007 course:
I read each of your evaluations and found them to be excellent. In fact, if you will excuse the pun, they are sterling. Thank you for continuing to contribute to Converse. I must agree with the student who wrote that we lost one of our best faculty members when you retired. Fortunately for us, you have retired but not faded away.
He did not fade away. He continued to contribute to Converse as Director of the Converse Archives, where he earned the reputation of knowing everything there was to know about Converse (and Spartanburg as well). I spent many happy hours in the archives with Dr. Willis, asking him questions. Not once was I able to stump him.
In 2017, Converse honored Dr. Willis, celebrating fifty years of his service to the college. I recall well his comment to me after the ceremony: he just did not understand what all the fuss was about.
Dr. Willis was a model teacher, a scholar whose elegant style graces numerous publications, and above all he was a gentleman. We were so fortunate to enjoy his long and gracious presence at our college.”
From Alumna Joye Cantrell ’71:
“Dr. Willis came to Converse with my class, which entered in the fall of 1967. I was in his history class on the first Converse semester in England. Looking back on that semester, I realize how much he had worked on giving us a fantastic overview of England. I treasured his friendship.”
From Professor of History Emerita Dr. Melissa Walker:
“Dr. Willis was blessed with a wry sense of humor and an ability to tell great stories, and one of the great privileges of my life was sitting with him and a group of faculty in Gee each day and listening to his stories. story was from one of the London term trips. During the London term, students had class and field trips during the day, but they were often on their own during the evenings and so was the faculty. Converse students are relentlessly curious about the private lives of their professors. Dr. Willis recalled one group that was particularly inquisitive about what he did with his evenings. He was intensely private, and he would never give them any details, so one evening two or three girls took followed him when he left the hotel to go for dinner. Of course, he spotted them almost immediately. He said he led them on a convoluted path to a bookstore he knew which sat on a corner and had entrances/exits on two different streets. The students didn’t know about the second entrance, and he was able to slip out the other side of the store without them seeing him leave, thereby frustrating their nosiness. He always told that story with great amusement.”
Watch Converse’s video tribute to Dr. Jeff Willis:
https://youtu.be/BbM7nagF1gAFrom Charles A. Dana Professor of History and Politics, Chair of History and Politics Dr. Joe Dunn:
“My graduate school adviser once remarked “If you want to be remembered as a teacher, accent your eccentricities. Those will be invoked long after anything that you had to say has disappeared from memory.” Jeff Willis unconsciously and purposefully was the exemplar of that philosophy. He was a shy, quiet, and private man, who became his best self in the public arena of the classroom.
I met him for the first time in 1976 when I came from Europe for an on-campus interview. I discerned quickly that he was a man of disciplined manner and firm beliefs. Change was not his forte. I first experienced that when he wrote me in Europe to inform me my textbook in History 100 would be. I wrote back that I did not use textbooks. His terse response was “We do. I will order it for you.”
Late in his career, Jeff published a postcard history of Spartanburg and followed with pictorial histories of Greenville and Converse College. Jeff never envisioned himself as a publishing scholar, but his pictorial histories are valuable resources. The Converse Archives was the fitting domain for Jeff’s final years. He was a teller and keeper of stories. He enthralled alums at Alumnae Weekends and other venues with his tales—of resident ghosts in buildings, legends, and folklore.
Jeff Willis not only presided over our history; he was our history. Institutions have legends. Jeff Willis will remain one.”
From Alumna Perry Wilson ’78:
“I was a History major from the Class of 1978. One of my favorite memories happened during my sophomore year. My roommate that year was Anne Boggess Saint. We invited Dr. Willis to go out with us to hear the band, Archie Bell and the Drells, play at the Loading Dock. We picked him up in my old Chrysler New Yorker land yacht and rode shotgun in the front seat with Dr. Willis between us. A good time was had by all and we reminded Dr. Willis about it at every reunion thereafter! His favorite song they played that night was “Kung Fu Fighting”!
It was a tradition that he invite the senior History majors and some of their friends to his home for dinner. He proudly showed us his toy soldiers and lit his brass candle chandelier prior to serving us a delicious homemade meal!”
From Dr. Mirko Hall:
“Over the past several weeks, much has been written about Dr. Willis (and rightly so!) as the quintessential Southern gentleman-scholar. But did you know that he was also a fashionista, who offered his expert advice to younger colleagues? Jeff told me that if I were to ever spill BBQ sauce on my seersucker jacket, I should not be ashamed! It was a visible sign—no, a mark of honor!—that I had now fully acclimatized to the South.”
From Alumna Marilu Metherell ’99:
“When word of Dr. Willis’ passing came this summer, I was lucky to be in the company of one of my dearest Converse friends, Carla Evans Lovi (also class of ‘99). We were both eager to share our favorite memories of sweet Dr. Willis with our families. Carla reminisced over his collection of toy soldiers. He had a wonderful collection and used it to reenact great battles for his students in class and mesmerize us into remembering facts with ease. I shared many wonderful stories with her of times touring across England and Scotland. He educated us not only on the life and great history of the areas we visited, but also on the social graces required to enjoy a polite afternoon tea and an elaborate 12-course meal. We studied the art, the food, the city, the countryside.
He could be quiet, yes. But, he was also bold. He had friends all over Europe. He knocked on the doors of ancient castles and we would be eagerly welcomed inside for a long visit by a Duke wearing his comfortable slippers or an Earl with a warm hug and genuine fondness for ‘Jeffery!'”
From former Dean and Emeritus Professor of Education Dr. Tom McDaniel:
“Professor Jeff Willis is a difficult person to forget — indeed impossible! He was one of the first faculty members I met and worked with when I came to Converse in 1971; he was Chair of the History Department, then, and I was Chair of the Education Department and Director of the MAT Program; we were colleagues, and I benefited from his example and
“Undergraduate and graduate students alike admired his calm demeanor, his wit, and his sometimes quirky mannerisms.”
Undergraduate and graduate students alike admired his calm demeanor, his wit, and his sometimes quirky mannerisms–telling me on occasion that they thought he was the Converse Mr. Chips or even Ichabod Crane. This was before Yoda of Stars Wars fame or Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter novels, but they might also come to mind as one reflects on wise and interesting mentors and professors.
Students who studied with him in his British History courses and went with him on the travel-study program in England (one of our very early such foreign travel courses) found his detailed knowledge of English historical sites and events amazing and unforgettable.
In his later years as an archivist in the Converse Library, he excelled and even added his own scholarly work to our collection with his postcard history of the College and other institutional documents of historical value.
Once in one of our many lunch-time discussions in our College dining hall, I asked him why, on a Friday, he was in suit and tie, since faculty always honored Friday informality customs. He declared that he was a rebel and defied such modern inventions. I am sure he ALWAYS defied casual Friday in his good-humored rebellion.
Others will have even more memories of this remarkable faculty member — one of the finest exemplars of faculty excellence over his lifetime of service and teaching at this college, his academic home for so many years.”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.”