The Passing of Bill Wagner

Williams faculty and staff,

As promised, I write to share some remembrances of Brown Professor of History, Emeritus, and former Interim President and Dean of the Faculty Bill Wagner, who passed away yesterday.

One of the most telling things I can say about Bill is that he was well-known, admired and indeed beloved at Williams. During 37 years here he served as a respected faculty member and a gently influential college leader, an influential scholar and an important, if low-key, community member. He was respected as much by staff as by his faculty colleagues and students. The college we work at today bears his positive imprint in many ways.

Bill grew up in Erie, Penn., and attended Haverford College, where he played football and earned a B.A. in Russian Studies—a major he created for himself, and which the college formalized two years later. Shortly after graduation he married his sweetheart from junior high school, Linda Hammond, who became his lifelong friend and partner. The couple set out for Oxford so that Bill could pursue a B.Phil. in Russian and East European Studies, on his way to what he expected would be a career in the law. But the law missed out. Bill fell in love with Russian history—a love his Williams colleague and friend Bill Lenhart, the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Computer Science, described as second in his life only to the love for his own family.

So Bill and Linda stayed on in Oxford, where he earned a D.Phil. in Modern History and the couple raised their daughter, Kate, now a federal prosecutor. During this time Bill also formed a lifelong friendship with fellow historian Rick Trainor, now Rector of Exeter College. Bill and Linda’s home and beautiful English-style gardens express their affection for those years.

Arriving at Williams in 1980, Bill as a newly minted academic co-taught a survey of European history with distinguished colleagues John Hyde, Brown Professor of History, Emeritus; Jim Wood, Charles R. Keller Professor of History, Emeritus; and the late Dudley Bahlman, as well as courses in his own field, ranging from “Fin-de-Siècle Russia: Cultural Splendor, Imperial Decay” to “Gorbachev and the Collapse of Soviet Communism.”

A former student recalled that, whenever Bill taught, he “always had a little smile on his face, as if looking to share some great story from Russian history.” His meticulous research on the history of women in Russia and the Soviet Union—including a particular convent of Orthodox nuns in Nizhnii Novgorod—was quietly pioneering in the field of social history. Such work, along with his research on the interrelationship between religion and modernity, earned Bill grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies and the International Research and Exchanges Board, among others.

I was fortunate to get to know Bill a little in my own time at Williams. He was by then justifiably famous for his thoroughness, kindness and attentively impassive style. “There was something about the law that always really appealed to Bill,” remembered his friend Tom Kohut, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Professor of History. “It probably had to do with his belief in justice and ethics and fairly adjudicating disputes, all of which served him very well in his work as a dean.” Hans W. Gatzke ’38 Professor of Modern European History Chris Waters concurred. “Bill will be remembered for being so meticulous and thorough in everything he did,” Chris wrote. “Even if one disagreed with him, one could readily admire the deep thought and careful attention to detail that always characterized his work.”

Williams learned to appreciate and tap into these qualities, appointing Bill to successive leadership roles as Chair of the History Department, Assistant Dean of the College, Director of the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford and Dean of the Faculty.

When Morty Schapiro left the college in 2009, the Board of Trustees unanimously approved Bill as interim president. It was the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, and Williams was pausing or scaling back major initiatives, including construction of a new Sawyer Library. After two relatively prosperous years as dean, Bill was now dealing with a very different situation as president. Yet he calmly steered Williams through, with his typical attention to detail and consideration for all points of view. To this day, people remember the way the college avoided layoffs during that time. Bill helped make that happen, although he often spoke with pride about the team effort involved.

Greg Avis ’80, who chaired the Board at the time, writes, “Bill Wagner’s leadership as interim president was characterized by his steady hand, strong intellect, and the goodwill he engendered. He generously stepped into the position, having served as the Dean of Faculty, during a challenging time…. Bill led Williams expertly during this period. It was a pleasure and privilege to work with such a warm, caring, and intelligent individual.”

Bill Lenhart, who was Provost when Bill Wagner was Dean of Faculty and Interim President, described “a wonderful colleague who became a great friend… During our tenure together in Hopkins Hall as ‘the Bills’ we spoke virtually every day, and I was invariably struck by the compassion and good judgment he brought to those conversations. He saw—and brought out—the best in people, and that is a rare gift.”

Bill Wagner had been looking forward to retirement, including more time with Linda and Kate, as well as a chance to travel. His passing is an unexpected and deep loss. Please join me in keeping Linda, Kate and all of Bill’s family and friends in your hearts.