Literary Scholar Willis McNelly
Dead at 82
April 10, 2003 :: No. 195
Willis E. McNelly, 82, emeritus professor
of English at California State University, Fullerton, passed away
in his sleep April 7 at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, following
a battle with cancer. He was a Fullerton resident.
An internationally recognized scholar and authority
on the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, William
Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats, McNelly — honored as
both a campus and California State University Outstanding Professor
— was best known for his pioneering efforts to win acceptance
of science fiction as a serious form of modern literature.
His close relationships with Frank Herbert, author of the Dune novels,
and other noted authors, such as Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Ray
Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison and Robert Heinlein, led
to the creation of Cal State Fullerton’s renowned Science
Fiction Collection. The collection, housed in the university’s
Pollak Library, is built upon the donation of scores of rare science
fiction volumes once owned by McNelly and his father, Willis McNelly
Sr., along with original drafts and priceless editions from prominent
authors and colleagues.
Editor of the critically acclaimed and highly sought-after
Dune Encyclopedia, McNelly also wrote, edited or helped compile
numerous essays and works of science fiction, such as Science Fiction
Novellas, Mars We Love You, Above the Human Landscape, An Anthology
of Social Science Fiction, Science Fiction: The Academic Awakening,
and articles “Science Fiction in the Wake of James Joyce”
and “Relativity in Middle High Martian.” He also penned
the eulogy for Herbert, his close friend, who preceded him in death
McNelly joined Cal State Fullerton in 1961 after teaching
at Loyola University in Chicago; Rich Township High School in Park
Forest, Illinois; and Santa Ana College. He served the university
for 31 years. During his tenure, McNelly served three terms on the
university’s Academic Senate and held various administrative
appointments. He also was a member of several committees, including
the Faculty Personnel Committee. In addition, he was campus sponsor
for Alpha Phi Omega and the Newman Club for 30 years.
“Perhaps his greatest legacy, however, is his
recognition by his peers as an outstanding teacher and professor,”
said Joseph Sawicki, chair and professor of English, comparative
literature and linguistics. “A dynamic and challenging instructor,
Dr. McNelly influenced and inspired thousands of students over the
decades to an awareness of the importance of the humanities in their
personal and cultural development and an appreciation of the written
McNelly was selected as Cal State Fullerton’s
Outstanding Professor of the Year in 1975 and in 1976 received the
prestigious CSU Outstanding Professor of the Year award. He was
the second Cal State Fullerton faculty member to receive the systemwide
After his retirement, McNelly served as president
of the CSUF Emeriti organization and was its representative to the
Academic Senate. His love for libraries led him to serve as a trustee
of the Fullerton Public Library from 1992 to 1998.
McNelly received his bachelor’s degree from
Central YMCA College, his master’s degree from Loyola University
of Chicago and his doctorate from Northwestern University in 1957.
His patriotism is reflected in the recognition that will be engraved
on his gravestone for his years of service defending his country
as a veteran of World War II and the Korean conflict.
Together with his wife, Genevieve, Willis played a
formative and leadership role in the Catholic lay action movement
during the late 1940s and early 1950s. They were active in the formation
of the Cana Marriage Conference and the Christian family movement.
Their work included the building and support of local parish libraries,
which continued upon their arrival in California in 1958, when they
become the “Orange County Leadership Couple” at Holy
Family Parish in Orange. The couple’s activities expanded
to Los Angeles with the establishment of the marriage encounter
The McNellys also instigated the adult education program
with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Orange, where Willis taught a
number of English courses. The McNellys were members of St. Juliana’s
Servite Parish of Fullerton.
Besides his wife, McNelly is survived by five children,
Peter of Toronto, Canada; Patrick of Fullerton; Margaret Schimmels
of Olathe, Kan.; James of St. Cloud, Minn.; Jean Bowers of Kalamazoo,
Mich.; and nine grandchildren.
Private funeral arrangements and a campus memorial
service are being planned.
Donations can be made in memory of McNelly to the
Fullerton Public Library Foundation, 353 W. Commonwealth, Fullerton,
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