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Broadway and television actress Helen Wagner Willey '38 dies

Jeff Rankin
05/02/10
Helen Wagner Willey '38

Helen Wagner Willey ’38, one of Monmouth College's most notable and beloved alumni, has died at the age of 91.

For more than 50 years, Willey played matriarch Nancy Hughes on the daytime television serial "As The World Turns." She is acknowledged by the Guinness Book of Records as playing a character longer than any actor on television.

A native of Lubbock, Texas, Willey credited a favorite aunt who performed on the Chautauqua circuit and graduated from Monmouth for her decision to attend the college, where she studied voice and drama.

Her acting career got its first boost when she appeared in a small speaking part in a musical with the St. Louis Municipal Opera. Her talents were recognized by the author of the musical, Oscar Hammerstein, which led to a role on Broadway in Hammerstein's production of "Sunny River," and later "Oklahoma!"

A second beginning for her career came when she accepted a position as alto soloist with the Bloomfield (N.J.) Presbyterian Church, a job that lasted five years, until she went on the road with the Theater Guild Shakespearean Company.

Another key moment in her life occurred when she met actor and later Broadway producer Robert Willey, whom she would later marry and who would become her manager. He preceded her in death last year.

For years, Willey alternated between musicals and straight plays on Broadway and summer theater, holding lead roles in productions of "A Doll's House," "Ladies in Retirement," "The Bad Seed," "Streetcar Named Desire" and "The Lion in Winter." Along the way, she worked with such talents as Rex Harrison, Lili Palmer, Joanne Woodward, Mildred Natwick and Evelyn Varden.

Following World War II, Willey turned her attention to television, appearing on many of the legendary programs of the 1950s, including "Studio One," "Lamp Unto My Feet," "Suspense," "Danger," "Philco Playhouse" and "Goodyear Playhouse."

In November 1955, after appearing regularly on "The World of Mr. Sweeney," she made the pilot of "As the World Turns."

In 2002 Willey received a plaque on the Buddy Holly Walk of Fame in her hometown, and in 2004 she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

In 1988, she was awarded an honorary degree by Monmouth College and the following year, chaired a national committee that raised more than $1 million to replace the college's Little Theatre with a state-of-the-art theater. On the opening night in the new Wells Theater, she played the role of Eleanor in "The Lion In Winter." At the conclusion of the performance, President Haywood announced to the audience that the Wells Theater stage would be named in Willey's honor.

In 1992, Willey became one of the first members inducted into the college's Hall of Achievement, its highest alumni honor.

In 2002, she provided the welcoming remarks, via tape, for a gala at Galesburg's Orpheum Theatre, celebrating the 100th birthday of her friend and music mentor from her college days, the late Gracie Peterson.

"Although I never took a piano lesson from Gracie," Willey recalled, "I was a member of her Second Church Choir, a group she directed with amazing energy and verve. I remember well her offer of $5 to any student who did not miss a practice. Perhaps the most influential person in Gracie’s life was Miss Edna Browning Riggs, a gifted musician and disciplinarian. Miss Riggs also had a profound influence on my own career, taking me to New York the summer of my junior year to study in a master piano class under Abram Chasins."