Richard Eugene Willis

BRUNSWICK – How can we contain the whole life of Richard Eugene Willis in the tight lines of a simple obituary? We could say that he died peacefully in his own home in Brunswick, Maine, on January 29, 2020, during the quiet hours of morning, having valiantly made it through the holidays for his family. And we certainly could say that his last word was, “Love,” a word that defines him more than any other.

We could say he was born on October 23, 1941, in Springfield, Massachusetts, of A. John Willis and Pauline Spevack Willis and was their only son, having been so perfect that no repeats were required. And we could say that he graduated from Springfield Classical High School as one of the kids we called “eggheads” back in THAT century.

We could say Richard completed his B.A. in history at Yale, where he was named to Phi Beta Kappa, then surged toward the great Pacific to see the whole Big Sky west of New England, where his graduate advisor, in front of a class crammed with striving academicians, asked why someone from back east would choose Stanford for his doctorate to which Richard quipped impertinently, “I find the weather to be quite salubrious.” And we could say that decades later, when asked by his wife of over 30 years, who married him because of his ice-dry wit, not in spite of it, what he liked most about his doctoral stint between the fragile, 18th century pages of England’s libraries and crumbling estate towers, he knitted his Gandalf-wild brows. “Might of been the pub across from the British Museum where I ate bangers and mash every single day because my fellowship grant housed me well enough but allowed few luxuries.”

We could note his other honors and awards, which include the Seymour Prize, Woodrow Wilson Fellowship 1963-1964; Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship, 1966-1967 and the National Endowment for the Humanities, summer stipend 1972 and that years later, he also completed a Master of Science in educational psychology at the University of Maine, Orono.

We could say he was published in various journals as well as a bibliography of books on American and European military history.

We could say that Dr. Willis, a title few were allowed to use, continually aligned his life’s work with his personal belief that education is a lifelong pursuit and should endow the learner with ever-greater skills for being useful to others. In this quest, he lived the wisdom of the quotes he so often introduced to his students and infused his unique mentoring style of co active listening with the intent to understand more than to be understood. To this noble end, for over 50 years, he pursued positions ever more aligned with his passion for making the world a kinder and tidier place.

We could then list that lifetime work:

Instructor, University of California at Berkeley, 1967-1970; Assistant. Prof., Tufts University, 1970-1974; History Dept. Chair, Oak Grove-Coburn School, 1974-1978; Director, Division of Humanities and Sciences, Thomas College, 1978-1985; Dean, Division of Graduate and Professional Education, Thomas College, 1985-1991; Dean, Division of Continuing Education, Central Maine Technical College, 1991-2001; President, Mid-State College, 2001-2002; Program Director, Master of Science in Education, Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, 2002-2008; Distance/Online faculty member, Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, Master of Health Services Education program, 1990-2002; and Master of Science in Education program, 2002-2018.

We could say he was a man singularly devoid of hubris, for all his honors and accolades, and that he vigorously eschewed both pretense and “self-puffing.” And we could quote him in all his naked honesty as saying, “Personally, I admire Loren Eiseley, A. E. Housman, Carl Sagan, Edward Abbey, Oscar Wilde, John and Abigail Adams, Bob Dylan, Francis Bacon, M. F. K. fisher, Edward Gibbon, Pema Chodron, and all good detective/espionage novelists. I enjoy the coast of Maine, the Southwest’s mesa and canyon country, facilitating the autonomous learning of others, and occasionally managing to discover the unexpected, but my wife is my one true love.”

We could say that everyone who knew Richard will remember his legendary appetite for spotting irony in matters as simple as Cheetos’ commercials and as complex as impeachment proceedings; for plotting the next road trip with an ancient Rand McNally; for promoting others to realize their own dreams through diligent study and practice; and for discovering the ultimate hot fudge sundae.

We could say he was a man of towering empathy and we could say that he “got” the humanity thing with a laser sharp ability to both recognize all that is good and honorable in people and to spot deceit and cruelty and call it out. And, how he believed that people of good will always try that one more time to be better than they were a moment before.

And finally, we could say he was a man for all seasons, particularly this one, where the Grateful Dead still live on.

What we couldn’t say is that he was small in any way. To be known by Richard to be kind and true was to be loved, and to be loved by Richard was all.

Richard is survived by his beloved wife and best friend, Shirley; his beloved son, Nicholas and his partner, John Lugo-Toro; two beloved sisters-in-law, Dianne Lee and Susan Salley and her husband, Scott Salley; the beloved “Mafoogs;” his beloved cousin, Nancy Muno, his beloved grandchildren, nieces, nephews and many friends and acquaintances.

A daughter, Maria Amoroso and her husband, Matthew; a son, Jeremy Willis and his wife, Deborah Cluchey; and a stepson, Mark Hunter and his wife, Linda Madson, also survive.

A celebration of life will be held at his home, 3 Appletree Drive, Brunswick, Maine, on August 1, from 1-4 p.m.

Final arrangements are in the care of Funeral Alternatives of Brunswick, Maine. Condolences may be expressed at www.funeralalternatives.net

As an alternative to flowers, donations to The Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine would be cherished.