Homage to Dr. Bill Wilson, soul of Wiess College

Dr. Bill was as good a friend as the students ever had. He laughed easily and readily. The students saw him when they first arrived, as he obtained more natural photographs of them than the graduation shots they had sent in with their acceptances. At the end they saw him when they walked across the outdoor graduation stage. But it was in between those dates that mattered most. Bill had time to talk, time to record theatrical and musical productions, time to screen T shirts, time to host weekly summer get-togethers for dispersed Wiess students. He had time for many other little details that smooth stressful student lives. And so graduation was seldom the end for Wiess students. They come back for beer bike, tomorrow. They come back for homecoming. They came back to see Dr. Bill.

Dr. Bill, as we all called him, lived in a small apartment at Wiess College for about three decades, making him the longest Wiess resident associate. Some in such a position might lapse into a kind of extended boyhood, but Dr. Bill was not like that. He always maintained a certain dignity, and gave the impression he was there to help, not to be helped. His service to Wiess seemed to come easily and joyously to him. He knew what people needed, and provided it when he could. I could always count on him remembering to get me contact prints of student photographs. He also made sure I got the video recordings of theater productions that included my son, Danny. The lunch table where Dr. Bill sat stayed the longest, laughed the loudest. But he could also be serious, and help others grapple with difficult decisions.

Dr. Bill retired earlier than many because he knew it would take time establish a private life again, and he wanted to do it while he was comparatively young. I think he did not want to make the transition to being helped rather than being the helper while still at Wiess. Unfortunately, he passed on all too soon after leaving Rice, of pancreatic cancer. His memorial was packed with fond students. They returned yesterday for the dedication of the Dr. Bill Wilson house for the faculty couple that most mentor the college (painfully, in my view, called the masters).

You can tell how important an event is at Rice by how good the food is, and whether the president shows up, and how long he (it’s always been a he) stays. By both accounts, this was an important event. Students returned from all four of the decades I’ve been at Rice and Wiess. Some came from afar. There were five masters at the event, including those that have left Houston. Bill’s brother came, and gave us a tantalizing, living echo of Dr. Bill’s wit. Few colleges or universities have a college system like ours, that brings faculty and students together outside classes, not outside the learning environment.

One of the things about a place is its history, personal and public. Sometimes this even supersedes the physical place. Wiess College used to be in a different building, with a slightly different geometry. I have a couple of sentimental bricks from that building I will be taking to St. Louis with me. When it was finally torn down, after sinking too much into the Houston gumbo, we moved to a new building, also a shell of rooms around a courtyard, still called the acabowl. Dr. Bill’s apartment was much nicer in the new building, but I wonder if he didn’t sometimes miss the coziness of the old one. We can think of Dr. Bill and long-past events at Wiess anywhere. But when we’re here, they are most real. The students who are undergraduates today did not know Bill as a resident associate, so he will not be part of their memories of Wiess, hard as that is for the rest of us to believe. We’ve all had the experience of going back to a place thick with intense memories that involve ghosts that are no longer there. These kinds of memories often involve schools, and our transitory, but crucial, times in them. For my father, my grandparents, countless others, leaving is fleeing, more serious than the normal transition out of school. Occasionally it also involves return. Who are all these new people that have no clue of who was here before? A sense of place almost has no meaning without history, in all senses, and that history all too easily slips through our fingers and our minds.

The rest of this story can be told in photos, and in our memories.


Dr. Bill Wilson


A courtyard of the modern, energy efficient Wilson House.

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The food was tops!

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The former masters, Joan Rea, Katherine Donato, Denise Klein, Mike Gustin, John Hutchinson, Paula Hutchinson, George Pharr, Marilyn Pharr


George 1, 2, 3. George Webb, center, wild boy as an undergraduate (Tallyboo???), most loyal organizer, and leader in all things Wiess now.


Drinks in a canoe, in honor of Dr. Bill.


What this kind of event looks like to kids.

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Margy and Dave French’s kids scored her ipad!


Stan Dodds, another loyal Wiess associate and former RA, and Joan Rea.


Dr. Bill’s brother, and the med school view from Wilson House.

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Back at Wiess, students who never knew Dr. Bill getting ready for Beer-Bike.




About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Rice University. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Homage to Dr. Bill Wilson, soul of Wiess College

  1. Natalie says:

    Thanks for this write-up. As a member of one of the first classes to pass through Wiess sans Dr. Bill (I matriculated in 2007), I have heard so much about him and always wish I’d had the chance to meet him.

  2. George Webb says:

    What a terrifice reminiscence!

    For those who missed the dedication of Wilson House in March 2011, there will be an open house this fall during Homecoming, graciously hosted by the new masters, Alex ’90 and Jeannette Byrd. It is Saturday November 5, 2011, from 5:30 pm (i.e., right after the football game) to 7:00 pm. For those who remember Dr. Bill’s summer happy hours, this event sort of recaptures that atmosphere in the building that bears his name. Please come!

    Afterward, the college invites alums to a barbecue in the Acabowl.
    Contact me directly if you need more information.
    George Webb
    Wiess ’88, ’91

  3. Tom Wilson says:

    Thanks for the wonderfully good words and photos, Joan. Sitting in Bill’s retirement house in Warren Vt, I randomly googled “Dr Bill”Wilson and your posting came up number one. Bill’s influence was massive and still carries on. Peace.

    Tom Wilson

    • Hi Tom, I’m glad you liked it. I had not read it in awhile, and it made me sad to reread. But life is not only measured in length, but also in fullness. Bill lives on in the hearts of so many Wiess alums, and in the faculty who learned from him. I’m gone from Rice now. When I go back, Wiess is the place I go first, and the place I most miss. Without Bill it was never the same. But he set the tone of the place and that continues. The students there now do things without Bill that they owe to him, without even realizing it. It was wonderful to see you at the memorial. It is now wonderful to think of you enjoying the place Bill so loved. If you ever make it to St. Louis, we have space!

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