Barry McNamara  |   Published November 29, 2021

In memoriam: Gary Willhardt ’59

Monmouth College graduate, who returned to his alma mater to teach English for 33 years, died Nov. 27 at the age of 84.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Emeritus professor of English Gary Willhardt slipped into the “Realms of Light” on Nov. 27. He was 84 at the time of his death in Clarksville, Iowa.

GARY WILLHARDT: Emeritus professor of English taught at his alma mater from 1967-2000. GARY WILLHARDT: Emeritus professor of English taught at his alma mater from 1967-2000.In addition to teaching English at Monmouth for 33 years, Willhardt was a 1959 Monmouth graduate.

“He was an outstanding teacher,” said Jeremy McNamara, a longtime colleague in the English department. “I don’t know anybody who didn’t enjoy his classes and get a lot out of them. Right from the beginning, he was a success.”

That beginning came in 1967. As the new chair of the English department, McNamara was charged with hiring faculty, and Willhardt came recommended from the department chair at Ohio State University. Willhardt was completing his doctorate at Ohio State, which included a thesis on 18th-century English poet John Byrom. He and his first wife, Janet Miller Willhardt ’60, moved to Monmouth along with their young son, Mark.

The end of his teaching tenure came in 2000 and overlapped the beginning of Mark’s career in the English department. Today, Mark is the College’s dean of the faculty and serves as vice president for academic affairs.

“That I could build my career upon his legacy is truly something special, and something I have cherished from my first day on faculty.” Mark Willhardt 

“In academics, it’s unusual to follow one’s parent into the same discipline, but it’s practically unheard of to do so at the same institution, as well,” said Mark. “That I could build my career upon his legacy is truly something special, and something I have cherished from my first day on faculty.”

AS A YOUNG MAN: Willhardt is pictured during one of his first years teaching at Monmouth College. AS A YOUNG MAN: Willhardt is pictured during one of his first years teaching at Monmouth College.Between 1966 and 1995, either McNamara or Gary Willhardt served as chair of the English department. Gary manned the post from 1971-88, and Mark was twice chair of the department from 2011-18.

“Gary was a very close friend,” said McNamara. “We really hit it off, both in the department and out of the department. I can’t imagine a closer, more productive, more enjoyable relationship with anybody. We really agreed on what a small-college English department should be.”


Helping students discover ‘Who am I?’

Willhardt articulated his viewpoint on that subject in a 1986 article in Scots Newse, the College magazine.

“Education cannot simply be external,” he wrote. “One thing students have to do is develop some sensitivities and begin to understand what they feel about things, not just what they know about things. … ‘Who am I and what do I believe in?’”

Willhardt’s belief, expressed in a 1980s-era admission piece, was that “literature can make a difference in people’s lives … through literature, students can learn more about themselves and about society.”

“Literature can make a difference in people’s lives … through literature, students can learn more about themselves and about society.” Gary Willhardt


When the careers of Gary and Mark intersected in 2000, Scots Newse ran a piece comparing and contrasting the teaching and fashion styles of the father and son. Their department colleague, emeritus professor Craig Watson, contributed to the article, citing Gary’s “18th-century elegance.”

Today, Watson, who taught with Willhardt for 14 years, expanded on that sentiment.

“Wry, elegant, self-deprecating and very funny – Gary was in every sense and on every occasion a gentle man of belles lettres. He happily taught writing and literature as achievements of style in service of a gentler ‘cultivated society.’ He epitomized and taught students to value reflection and taste and, to use a Jamesian term I appreciate, ‘sensibility.’ In short, we already know painfully what it is to miss him and his influence.”

“He epitomized and taught students to value reflection and taste and, to use a Jamesian term I appreciate, ‘sensibility.’” Craig Watson

Emeritus history professor William Urban also touched on Willhardt’s wit when offering his remembrances.

“He was by far the best after-dinner speaker we had in my 50 years of experience,” said Urban. “His dry wit, delivered flat, always had a point, but he was careful to keep that low-key. Each presentation was fresh, modest and devoid of any pretense of superiority.”


‘The man who came to dinner and never left’

In a 1996 newsletter that featured a history of the English department, Willhardt, who was by then its senior member, wrote, “When the question of who would write (it) came up, all turned to me. Apparently, the old guy is typecast as the chronicler. I’m the man who came to dinner and never left.”

Willhardt came to study at Monmouth from Washington, Illinois. He was a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, later joining its alumni board and serving as president.

He met Jan at Monmouth, and the couple was married 32 years until her death in 1993. He married Jean Woltemath in 1996, and she survives, along with Mark and daughter-in-law Kat Argentine Willhardt ’12, and granddaughter, Emma.

ON BROADWAY: Gary Willhardt ?59 and Janet Miller Willhardt ?60 are pictured onstage during ?Give ... ON BROADWAY: Gary Willhardt ’59 and Janet Miller Willhardt ’60 are pictured onstage during “Give My Regards to Broadway,” an event held during Commencement weekend in 1989.Willhardt spent several sabbaticals in Scotland and England investigating a variety of literary and linguistic subjects, including the Scottish Enlightenment, Thomas Hardy and Arthurian literature.

In a biographical statement he prepared for a talk on campus, he wrote that he “has always been fascinated with the shape, the ebb and flow, of our language, especially the changing vocabulary.”

In addition to serving on various faculty committees, Willhardt was a presence on the Warren County Library Board, the Monmouth City Planning Committee and as a founding trustee of the Buchanan Center for the Arts. The latter volunteer work dovetailed with his hobbies of painting and woodcarving.

“He was a skilled woodcarver, an art requiring patience and great care,” said Urban. “The large piece he entered in the competition at the Buchanan Center was magnificent.”

No public funeral service will be held in the immediate future. The family will plan a ceremony of remembrance in the spring.

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