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Ushering out a 'Great One'

  By Dee Ann Rexroat '82  

Bill Heywood had a great mind and a beautiful character, attributes that benefited Cornell immensely for nearly a half century. With his death in November, noted President Les Garner at Bill’s memorial service, “he joins the ranks of legends such as William Fletcher King and William Harmon Norton.”

Bill was known foremost as professor, but also as dean, interim president, trustee, and college historian. He received every major honor the college had to give, and accepted each with deep humility. His final, posthumous, honor came when several hundred people paid tribute during his memorial service in King Chapel.

Former colleague Larry Shiner remembered Bill as the leader of the faculty “not by ambition but by an inner authority that he wore with grace and humility. … It was a revelation over the years to see him defend the rights of the faculty with tireless insistence, yet so judiciously and tactfully that many potentially ruinous conflicts were avoided—although he never shrank from conflict if it came. How often I have tried to follow his example, always discovering anew that he, more than anyone I have met, possessed that perfect balance of conviction, determination, and sensitivity that is the mark of a great leader.”

Professor emeritus Don Cell described Bill’s leadership as strong and genuine. “Like clockwork, we would begin to debate an issue, flailing about,” Cell said of faculty meetings. “Then Bill would speak and we knew how we would move ahead. … His sole purpose was the interest of the college. There would be absolutely no self-promotion or self-serving politics, no hidden agenda whatsoever.”

Richard Thomas, Bill’s history department colleague and collaborator on the college’s scholarly history, recalled his friend as living “with a radical openness that demanded radical honesty and the most profound kind of respect in times of disagreement. Bill so perfected this trait and value that he was highly sought after by the AAUP as a member of negotiating teams in situations of bitter disagreements over academic freedom and tenure.”

Indeed, Bill’s career included distinguished national service to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which was represented at the memorial service by Larry Posten from the University of Chicago.

“He was one of the least self-conscious men I ever knew, and, in a profession with no shortage of egoists, one of the least self-important,” Posten observed. “He was also one of the gentlest of men. I don’t think I ever knew until a few days ago that he was a graduate of Earlham, but many years ago I had already settled on the epithet ‘Quakerly’ to describe my experience of him: patiently waiting on the spirit instead of scoring points, placing concern for his students, his college, and higher education generally above personal ambition—or, more accurately, seeing those concerns as the ultimate fulfillment of his ambition.”

Bill’s oldest son, Phil, spoke about a side of his father many of us did not know—the outdoorsman. He and his father loved to hike together. Bill, Vivian, and their children, Phil, Eric, and Ann, returned to the same cabin in the Rockies every summer for a decade. During the family’s final moments with Bill, Phil’s thoughts turned to their hiking days. “At some point it occurred to me that his breathing resembled the hard, rhythmic breaths you take as you make that final push to the top of a mountain, your own breath resounding in your head,” he said. “…We held and caressed Dad as he took his last breath and the bells of King Chapel sounded. And it was beautiful.”

Bill lived beautifully and died beautifully. He would not have expected or wanted a tribute in these pages. There is no one more deserving.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
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