School of Humanities

James Alfred Willis


Eulogy for Emeritus Professor James Willis

Emeritus Professor John Jory – 27 June 2014

I first met James Alfred Willis over 50 years ago, 58 years in fact. I treasure his memory and it is an honour to be asked to say a few words about him and his academic and other achievements. We met in my first year as an undergraduate in University College London. Jim was one of the extremely learned staff who taught me but I first got to know him when I found him outside the Hall where we were living, with his head stuck under the bonnet of a huge Bentley. He was tinkering with the insides, obviously with success, since a few moments later the engine burst into life. I had stumbled upon one of Jim’s many enthusiasms outside of his academic pursuits. Incidentally the Bentley came with him to Australia, where he still kept on tinkering with it. Although we were friendly in the teacher-pupil way I didn’t really get to know him until after I came to Australia. After a couple of years my supervisor suggested that I should go to UCL for a year and that Jim should come to UWA for six months. UWA eagerly responded, quickly realising that six months of Willis was worth twelve months of Jory. I returned to London and in the six months before Jim travelled to Australia I discovered another of his accomplishments, cooking. He was particularly proud of his spaghetti Bolognaise and we spent many evenings in his rooms eating spaghetti, drinking beer or wine and talking about Australia. I don’t know whether this passion persisted after he married Ann. Most Bachelors quickly lose enthusiasm for cooking when they get married! During our chats another side of Jim came to light. He was fond of hiking and spent many holidays touring the Lake District, sometimes with the Bentley, sometimes with his good friends Eric and Carol Handley.

When Jim came to Australia he was immediately filled with enthusiasm for the place, its people and the way of life, if not for the standard of Latin of the students. The bright lights of the London theatres had never been much of an attraction to Jim, but the vast spaces of Australia were. So, much to the surprise of his many friends in England, when his six months came to an end Jim accepted the offer of a Readership at UWA. It was an enormous coup for UWA and also a financial bonus for Jim. He had often jokingly complained that he was the worst paid lecturer in Australia while I was the best paid lecturer in England! This was because during the exchange we kept our own salaries and at that time Australian academic salaries were much higher than English ones. Now a Reader, he could enjoy Australia on a generous Australian salary.

And enjoy Australia he did, in a most surprising way. He bought a Land Rover, fitted it out for the desert and departed for central Australia. This was over 50 years ago when the remote centre was rarely visited, when the roads were not sealed, and when there were no such aids as GPS or mobile phones to rely on for directional advice or help. It was a risky venture although some of our fears were lessened by the fact that Jim was such a good mechanic and could fix anything that went wrong with the Land Rover. Jim had as a companion a defrocked English clergyman whose driving and personal habits were not to Jim’s taste and he returned to Perth without him. On his return we were regaled with stories of places and people of which I at least had never heard. Laverton and Oodnadata featured large as did many missionary settlements. Jim was not a fan of either and his colourful accounts of outback life amused us for months. He was a splendid raconteur, with a biting wit and wonderful command of language. His criticisms of the University and some of his colleagues in the Faculty were not always of the kindest, and what might have been his most popular book, a satire on the Faculty of Arts, was never published. If it had been, Jim would have undoubtedly had to spend a lot of money on a good lawyer. Fortunately his colleagues in the department had the privilege, at many convivial lunches, of listening to his penetrating, and usually scurrilous, comments on his contemporaries. These lunches were sometimes extended, aided by Jim's generosity in providing cigars for everyone. Our research often became a topic of discussion, and at that time the number of publications by members of the department was at its height. Jim was the inspiration as we all tried with various degrees of success to emulate his productivity. It is to be hoped that in these more abstemious days those heights can be reached again.

But Jim’s generosity was not confined to his colleagues. He was happy to devote his time unreservedly to any student who knocked on his door and many took advantage of this. It was a time when the department and its offerings expanded greatly and Jim, the Latinist, found himself teaching across the full spectrum of courses in Greek, Latin and Ancient History. His sceptical lectures on the historicity of the Iliad were so convincing that some students asked why they were studying Homer in an Ancient History class if there was so little of historical value in Homer? Much of the time Jim was unflappable but he occasionally revealed his emotions, as when a group of students arranged for a Gorillagram to be delivered to his room on his birthday. Jim’s startled reaction destroyed his reputation for unflappability. Ancient History, Greek and Latin were taught with the same enthusiasm but Latin was Jim’s speciality and it is of his achievements in research that I now want to say a few words.

Emeritus Professor James Alfred Willis had a long and extraordinarily successful career in research. He was a Latinist by choice although his knowledge extended across the whole spectrum of Classical Studies as his many grateful students will testify. But it is as a Latinist that the world knew and respected him. During his working life here he was acknowledged by all as the best Latinist in Australia and he was indeed the best Latinist who has ever lived in Australia. This may seem a big claim but it is supported by his unrivalled list of important publications. His speciality was textual criticism. This is the attempt to establish the actual words written by the author from the many conflicting MSS that have come down to us. Jim chose to work on important Latin writers who at the time had been partially neglected. His primary enthusiasm was for late Latin writers and his first major critical edition was that of the works of Macrobius. Macrobius lived in the early 5th century AD. He was a prolific writer and establishing the texts of the 7 books of his Saturnalia and the two books on the dream of Scipio was a massive undertaking. The results were published by B.G. Teubner of Leipzig in 1963. There was a second edition in 1970 and a third in 1994. In the meantime Jim embarked on the text of another fifth century AD writer, the nine books on the seven pillars of learning by Martianus Capella. This in turn was published by Teubner in 1983. Soon he was inspired by a septuagenarian PhD student, Herbert Freeman, to turn his attention to the satiric poet Juvenal and in 1997 Jim produced a radically new text, again for Teubner. Alongside these major accomplishments came a book on Latin Textual Criticism, published in 1972 and in 1966, in collaboration with a colleague, Caius De Heer a translation from the German of Albin Lesky’s History of Greek Literature. These books brought worldwide recognition but Jim also published many penetrating articles on textual matters, perhaps not as well known as they should be because they were written in Jim’s elegant Latin and even some classical scholars prefer reading English to Latin.

Jim will not only be missed by his family, friends and colleagues but by the whole world of scholarship. He was a unique combination of scholarship and humanity and left a deep impression on all those who knew him.