I write with the promised commemoration of our late alumnus and trustee emeritus, Pete Willmott ’59. Pete passed away on November 11 at the age of 86 at his home in Williamstown, surrounded by family.
Many of the biographical details in this piece are drawn from the Willmott family’s obituary for Pete, combined with information from the College Archives.
A great many aspects of Williams that we consider special and hold dear would not be as they are, were it not for Pete’s leadership and devotion. When we awarded him the Rogerson Cup award for alumni service, his citation listed the remarkably varied roles in which he had volunteered for Williams over six decades: admissions representative, class agent, class president, regional president, member of the Society of Alumni Executive Committee, national chairman of the Third Century Campaign and regional chair of The Williams Campaign, and finally trustee 1983–98, including ten years as Executive Committee chair.
Trustees who joined the Williams Board after Pete’s tenure testify to his ongoing influence. Current Board Chair Liz Robinson ’90 says, “While my time as Trustee didn’t overlap with Pete’s, we on the current Board continue to benefit from his focus on financial stability and the principles of good governance. Anyone who knew Pete, or knew of his work, would recognize his imprint in our ongoing partnership with Maud and college leadership, and our attention to the long-term strategic vision for Williams’ excellence.”
Pete brought more than just his gifts for governance. Former trustee Hedrick Smith ’55, recalls, “Pete was the spirit of Williams: Congenial, generous, caring, thoughtful, cheerful, steady, and long-term oriented. He was a genial and flexible leader as our senior trustee, and an open-minded listener as well as firm in basic principles. He knew when it was time for discussion and time for decision. He led with a gentle touch and that was one big reason why it was a pleasure to serve with him.”
There was also a sense of fun to his work. Friend and fellow Trustee Paul Neely ’68 says, “the Board had a tradition that the retiring chair could choose a farewell activity that reflected their background. Pete chose a basketball game. So there we were in Lasell for a five-on-five game. I don’t remember how long it lasted, and at times it was almost comical. But it was quintessential Pete: ‘Let’s go out and have a competition. That’s what’s fun!’”
Pete’s drive was also evident in his work on the board of the Clark Art Institute, which he joined in 1999 and served as president from 2005 to 2015. He was a linchpin of the relationship between the college and the Clark, helping realize our combined educational and cultural potential during what Olivier Meslay, Hardymon Director of the Institute, has called “the most important and ambitious period in the Clark’s history.”
These strengths in leadership and strategic thinking were rooted in Pete’s diverse experience in corporate leadership. After graduating from Williams and Harvard Business School he began his career at American Airlines and Booz, Allen & Hamilton, before moving to I.T.T. Continental Baking Company as vice president and treasurer. In 1974 he joined Federal Express as chief financial officer, later becoming president and chief operating officer of the renamed FedEx, as well as a member of its board of directors. In 1983 he again shifted industries, first to become chairman, president and CEO of the department store chain Carson Pirie Scott & Co., and then president and CEO of the Fleming Companies and Zenith Electronics.
Along with Pete’s membership on numerous corporate boards, he was deeply involved in every community where he and his family lived: while at FedEx in Memphis he served as trustee and board chair of St. Mary’s Episcopal School, a senior warden at Church of the Holy Communion, and a board member of the Boys and Girls Club of Memphis. While living in Chicago he was board chair at Children’s Memorial Hospital and a board member of the Associated Colleges of Illinois; Chicago United; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; The Newberry Library; and the Francis W. Parker School. He also maintained a lifelong connection to Camp Dudley in Westport, New York, where he had spent summers as a child, and was a member of its board of managers. As to life here in the Berkshires, Denise Littlefield Sobel ’75 remarks that, “there is almost no aspect of life in the Williamstown community that has not benefited from his generous support and engagement.”
Somehow, in addition to all this work, Pete made time to also pursue a passion for thoroughbred horse racing at the highest levels of the sport. One of the Willmott Stables star horses, named Williamstown and sired by the famous Seattle Slew, set the track record at Belmont. Naturally Pete wound up chairing the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and becoming a steward of the Jockey Club, too.
Pete Willmott is survived by his wife of 35 years, Michele, and their children, Audrey Prieboy, Matthew Willmott, and Christopher Willmott (Rachel). He is also survived by his children from his first marriage, Cindy Belisle (Craig), Sarah Cowens (Tom), John Sherman Willmott ’88, David Willmott ’92 P25 (Catherine), and eight grandchildren: Sarah, Mollie and Caroline Belisle; Ellen Harrison (Blaine) and Margaret Cowens; and Charles ’25, Wylly and George Willmott. He is also survived by his siblings, brother Clark Willmott ’63 (Sheila) and sister Lesley Charlebois (Claude), along with cousins, nieces and nephews.
The family invites memorial contributions in Pete’s honor to the Sanjiv Shah Laboratory, by way of the Northwestern Memorial Foundation at the Northwestern Memorial Hospital. You are also invited to add to Pete’s Book of Memories.
Our thoughts are with Pete Willmott’s family, friends, colleagues and admirers at this time of loss.