Richard Hartley Willis Sept. 6, 1927 - July 11, 2017 Former Professor of Social Psychology at Pitt

By Spoerre, Anna | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), July 25, 2017 | Go to article overview

Richard Hartley Willis Sept. 6, 1927 - July 11, 2017 Former Professor of Social Psychology at Pitt


Spoerre, Anna, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Richard Willis was known in his later years for his love of cats and for winning his age group in the Pittsburgh Marathon at 69, but he will long be remembered for how gracefully he made his mark on science.

The retired social psychology professor from Forest Hills, who was at the forefront of research in conformity and nonconformity, died July 11. He was 89.

A. Martin Willis, the oldest of Mr. Willis' three children, said that despite his father's accolades as a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Carnegie Institute of Technology and later the University of Pittsburgh, his father was very humble.

"He was very unlikely to blow his own horn," Martin Willis of Falls Church, Va., said of his father, calling him a modest man who believed in the power of science and research to advance society.

In the '80s, Paul R. Nail - a professor of psychology who recently retired from the University of Central Arkansas - was at the time a young researcher at Southwestern Oklahoma State University finishing a paper for publishing. But first, he needed permission from Richard Willis, who was 20 years his senior, to republish some of his previous research.

Mr. Nail said Richard Willis not only gave him permission but also read through the full 100-page study. Six weeks later, Mr. Nail, of Conway, Ark., received in the mail a four-page, single-spaced letter from Mr. Willis detailing a flaw in Mr. Nail's theory and a way to correct it using binary code. Once that was fixed, the paper was published in the prestigious Psychological Bulletin.

"I was a young kid that needed help and he'd bend over backward for me," Mr. Nail said of Mr. Willis, who refused to be a co-author on the paper. "Some of the best ideas in the paper were his. It was a very kind act of generosity."

He said for Mr. Willis, who became for him a mentor and friend, it wasn't about credit and fame. Instead, it was more about getting the science right.

Richard Willis, who was born and raised in Illinois, took his interest in psychology with him to the Army, in which he served from 1952 to 1954. …

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