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Charles V. Willie, an American sociologist and Harvard Graduate School of Education professor famed for his work on school integration, race relations, and public health, died at the age of 94 on Jan. 11.
Known for his humility, passion for sociology, and mentorship, Willie was honored with numerous awards and honorary doctoral degrees throughout his life, including degrees from 15 colleges and universities and awards from Syracuse University, Morehouse College, the American Sociological Association, and the Eastern Sociological Society. He also served on President Carter’s Commision on Mental Health in 1977.
Willie attended Morehouse College, graduating as class president in 1948 alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After receiving a master’s degree from Atlanta University in 1949, Willie began his work at Syracuse University, where he earned his doctoral degree.
He taught at Syracuse for 24 years and was named as the school’s first Black tenured faculty member, later rising to be the vice president for student affairs.
Willie came to teach at Harvard in 1974. Former HGSE Dean Jerome T. Murphy said Willie stood out as “kind of a role model for what a good professor at a professional school is.”
“He was a wonderful teacher, both substantively and in terms of helping students, and he was a mentor to a lot of people,” Murphy said. “They looked up to him because he combined scholarship with practice and a heart — a big heart.”
Soon after moving to Boston, Willie worked on landmark school integration cases, reviewing and advising the city on its school desegregation plan.
University of Texas at Austin professor Richard J. Reddick, a former student and colleague of Willie’s, described how Willie’s commitment to equity and justice extended to his role as vice president within the Episcopal Church. Willie publicly resigned from his post after the national church refused to recognize the ordinations of women in several dioceses.
“He just said, ‘I can't be part of something that is discriminatory or unethical,’” Reddick said. “So, you know, somebody who both talked the talk and walked the walk in his personal life and his academic life.”
Swarthmore College Provost Sarah S. Willie-LeBreton, the oldest of Willie’s three children, said rather than strive for work-life balance, he would question how “the vocation of one’s work life” could be applied to their everyday activities.
“He found his work and all aspects of it so applicable to everything around us — not just to the classroom, not just to the scholarship, but to his activities in the churches where they belonged, to the school systems that we were in, to the issues that came up in any city or town where we lived,” Willie-LeBreton said.
Willie authored 30 books and more than 100 articles throughout his life, including several editions of “A New Look at Black Families,” which he co-wrote with Reddick.
Murphy praised Willie’s dedication to education and compassion for the students he mentored throughout his career.
“It was this kind of combination of this, really, fierceness towards making schools better — particularly around issues of justice — with this kind of softness and genuineness and caring for the students that made him special.” said Murphy.
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