William R. Willis, professor emeritus of physics

William WIllis

William R. “Bill” Willis, a retired physics professor and former chair of the department, died Sept. 11, 2012, in Tucson. He was 86.

Dr. Willis was born on Feb. 14, 1926, in Moundsville, W.Va. He trained as a Naval aviator during World War II, and following the cessation of hostilities earned his bachelor’s degree in physical chemistry from West Virginia Wesleyan College. He and his wife, Jean, shared 70 years together, dating in high school and marrying in 1946.

After earning his master’s and doctorate degrees in physics from Oklahoma State University, Dr. Willis worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee, where he engaged in several projects related to nuclear energy. His love of teaching led him back to his alma mater where he chaired the physics department at West Virginia Wesleyan from 1957 to 1965.

Following a stint with the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., he then joined the faculty at Northern Arizona University in 1967 to become the chair of the physics department. He was named the Faculty Member of the Year by the NAU Honors Council in 1971, and became a professor emeritus upon his retirement in 1988.

In 1975, Dr. Willis was appointed to and later chaired the Arizona Atomic Energy Commission.  During his tenure as chair, he presided over the administrative proceedings regarding the excessive release of radioactive tritium from the American Atomics Corp. factory in Tucson. After a lengthy hearing, the factory ultimately closed.

In 1983, he co-authored a study of the physics of leaping animals and the evolution of preflight, initially published by the American Naturalist. His fascination with flight also was reflected in his hang gliding and in his lengthy service with the Civil Air Patrol in northern Arizona where he attained the rank of major. He was an avid pilot most of his life.

He and his wife resided in Europe for four years, where he taught extension courses for the University of Maryland to American servicemen stationed in Germany and England. In 1994, they relocated to Tucson where they lived the remainder of their lives.

Dr. Willis was preceded in death by his wife, Jean Louise Evans Willis, on May 2, 2012. He is survived by his children, Jeffrey of Tucson; Steven (Ann Cummins) of Oakland, Calif., and Flagstaff; Catherine (Peter Rowson) of San Francisco; and John of Scottsdale.  He also leaves behind nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Contributions in his memory may be made to the Willis Family Scholarship in Physics, care of the NAU Foundation. A memorial service will be held at a later date.