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In Memoriam

H. I. Willett
Henry I. Willett

Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA) - March 21, 1986



Henry I. Willett, Richmond's school superintendent during the throes of desegregation and later acting president of Virginia Commonwealth University, died in a Henrico hospital yesterday after an extended illness.

Mr. Willett, who was 81 and lived at 6430 Roselawn Road, built a national reputation as an educator and as a strong superintendent.

"In large measure," he was responsible for making "Richmond's remarkably smooth transition from segregation to integration in its public schools one of the smoothest achieved by any city in the United States," a Times-Dispatch editorial in 1964 said.

His life and work brought praise from men those worked with him and men who opposed him in that difficult period in the early 1960s.

"He was as fine a superintendent of public schools as could be found in the United States," said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who served on the Richmond School Board during that time.

"Mr. Willett made a significant contribution toward keeping the Richmond schools open. He inspired confidence both among the faculty and the public," Powell said. "I held him in the highest esteem."

City Councilman Henry L. Marsh III, who was the lawyer for black plaintiffs seeking the integration of the city schools, had simliar praise for Mr. Willett.

"He was a capable, and in fact outstanding, superintendent," Marsh said yesterday. "We were opponents . . . but we had mutual respect for each other. . . . We grew to be good friends before it was all over."

Mr. Willett was not publicly in favor of integration, Marsh said, but "in fact, no superintendent actively supported integration. They reflected the views of their board."

In 1971, when speaking to Chesterfield parent-teacher group when the city was still in court over desegregation, Mr. Willett said, "I believe we had to have integration. But I think it's gone too far."

After the schools were integrated, and Marsh elected to the council, "He and I worked together to get adequate funding for the public schools," Marsh said.

When Mr. Willett was considering leaving Richmond in 1964 for another position, "I was one of the persons who worked very hard to keep him here," Marsh said. "We have lost a great educational leader."

Mr. Willett served as the head of Richmond's school system for 23 years, believed to be one of the longest such periods of continuous service in any major American city.

After he retired in 1969, he became a consultant and professor of education at VCU, where he helped develop the graduate program in education. He was the university's acting president in 1977, preceding Dr. Edmund F. Ackell, the current president.

Mr. Willett, who was born in Gloucester County, graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1925, received a master's degree from Columbia University in 1930 and did postgraduate study at Stanford University.

He held honorary doctorates from the University of Richmond, Washington and Lee University and William and Mary, but he made it a point not to use the title.

Mr. Willett's career in education began as a teaching principal in Smyth County and later served 13 years a principal of the combined elementary and high schools of Craddock and Churchland in Norfolk County, now Chesapeake.

Following three years as director of instruction and assistant superintendent in the Augusta County schools, he became head of the former Norfolk County schools in 1942.

Mr. Willett took over as Richmond's school chief in 1946.

While he was superintendent, the city built tens of millions of dollars' worth of new schools, including three high schools and a vocational-technical school, opened a highly regarded mathematics and science center, began award- winning programs in economics education and the understanding of democracy and communism, and expanded the city's kindergarten system.

Mr. Willett also placed emphasis on basic education, science, the humanities and speech instruction, expanded foreign language teaching, established special education programs and programs for the gifted, and used television for education.

He was the first Virginian to be president of the American Association of School Administrators, serving in 1955-56.

In 1955, Mr. Willett was chairman of the U.S. delegation to the International Conference on Education in Geneva, and in the same year the Richmond-First Club gave him its Good Government Award.

He was the B'nai B'rith's man of the year here in 1958 and was named to the national Educational Policies Commission.

By 1962, he was listed by the New York Herald Tribune as one of American's 11 most capable school administrators, and in 1966 he received the Richmond Bar Association's Liberty Bell Award.

He was appointed to the U.S. National Commission for the United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization during the 1960s.

Mr. Willett was active in the First Baptist Church, where he was a member of the board of deacons.

His survivors include his wife, Mrs. Doris Long Willett of Richmond, and two sons, Henry I. Willett Jr. of Virginia Beach and Thomas D. Willett of Claremont, Calif.

His funeral will be 10 a.m. tomorrow at the First Baptist Church. Burial will be in the Churchland Baptist Church Cemetery in Chesapeake.