Faculty, staff and friends are mourning the Oct. 24 death of longtime UVa-Wise professor and benefactor L. Stanley Willis.
Stan Willis, as he was known by students and faculty alike during his 27-year tenure at the College continues to leave his mark on the college through his impact on alumni from the 70’s and 80’s and through his gift of several acres near the college for an environmental education preserve.
Willis received his undergraduate degree from Hampden-Sydney College and then served in the U.S. Army before earning his Ph.D from the University of Virginia in 1968.
After a brief stint teaching in Nacogdoches, Texas at Stephen F. Austin University, Willis came back to Virginia where he joined the Clinch Valley College – now UVa-Wise – History Department in 1969.
Willis taught history and served two years as Dean of Students when the college became a four-year institution. He later became Chairman of the Faculty Council and worked in other administrative duties before retiring in 1996.
Willis was known for dressing plainly on campus, often being mistaken by freshman students for a maintenance crewman with his old ballcap, nylon flight jacket and work shoes – until their first day in one of his American history classes.
Professor Emeritus Glenn Blackburn arrived at Clinch Valley College the same year Willis joined the faculty
“Stanley was very laid back,” Blackburn recalled. “He was dean of students his first two years, and he actually wore a coat and tie a few times.”
Blackburn put Willis’s impact on Clinch Valley/UVa-Wise alumni in perspective.
“His oldest students are in their 70’s and his youngest students now are in their 40’s.”
Blackburn said that Willis thrived in the Clinch Valley College environment because of its role as a teaching college.
“He was a very colorful teacher and had a large following of students,” Blackburn said. “That college was a small institution, but it had several first-rate teachers, Cathy Mahony, Betty Gilliam, and Stan Willis was one of them.”
Blackburn said that Willis’ forte was bringing history into focus on everyday people affected by larger events.
“He did a lot of what today is called social history, ordinary people doing ordinary things, and he was very colorful about it,” Blackburn said.
“That’s what this college was in the 70’s and 80’s, a teaching college, and he was a good teacher and very proud of it,” Blackburn added. “He was very proud of this area and he really liked where he was.”
As a classroom instructor, Willis is remembered for many things but none more so than his colorful commentary and eclectic teaching style, whether it be a jarring statement to make sure students were paying attention to his lecture or throwing things across the classroom.
“I used to joke that Stan was from ‘Vulgaria’,” recalled UVa-Wise history professor Brian McKnight, a former student of Willis. “He saw no stigma in cursing and would often call your answer “chickens**t” or “sorryassed.” He would go further at times by dropping what young people now gently call the “F-bomb”. But he was the kind of person who could chastise your “half-assed” reading of the text without hurting your feelings. It was obvious that he cared about you, and anyone who, for a single minute, considered the effort he placed in teaching his classes, could see that”.
College Director of News and Media Relations Kathy Still and adjunct instructor and Highland Cavalier faculty advisor Mike Still each recalled Willis’ energy in the classroom from their Clinch Valley College student days.
Kathy Still said Willis constantly moved around the classroom, jumping on desks to add effect to his lectures.
“No one left bored”, she said.
Mike Still clearly recalled a “two-foot diameter area in the corner of the room where [Willis] would consistently throw chalk and erasers” to regain the focus of his students.
“Stan Willis made an indelible impact on my life and teaching style,” said former student Carol Chamberlain Banks Siler. “I hope I pass on the enthusiasm for history that he instilled in me. He commanded the classroom with his smart, witty repertoire as he paced the aisles and sat on desks while drawing answers out of us that we didn’t think we had”.
After retirement, Willis continued to serve the college as the president of the Poor Farm Society and often returned to campus to teach the occasional course.
Willis was also philanthropic, with a donation of forty acres to the college’s science department for current and future students to be used as an environmental laboratory in which to conduct field research and experimentation. This project was later named Stan’s Woods – a lasting commemoration of his adoration and dedication to UVa-Wise.
UVa-Wise Chancellor Donna Henry recounts Willis’ donation as her first encounter with the retired professor.
“He invited me along to come look at the land he had donated to the college, took one look at my shoes and told me they were too nice to be on the steep terrain and that I should buy some hiking boots,” Henry said. “He was very frank and upfront.”
Willis is survived by his wife Barbara and his daughter Elizabeth who were both present at the time of his passing. Willis is also survived by many students, colleagues, friends and family who were impacted by his presence.
L. Stanley Willis’ full obituary is online at the Sturgill Funeral Home website – www.sturgillfuneral.com – where friends and family can post condolences. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Stan Willis Scholarship in History at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise in his memory and honor.
There will be a memorial service for Willis at the David J. Prior Convocation Center on Sunday, Nov. 5 at 2 p.m. with many colleagues, former students, and friends speaking.