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Literary Scholar Willis McNelly Dead at 82


April 10, 2003 :: No. 195

Willis E. McNelly
Willis E. McNelly

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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 in 1986.

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 word.”

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 honor.

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 movement.

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, CA, 92832.

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Willis McNelly, Retired CSUF English Professor
He was a catalyst for the library's extensive science-fiction collection.
The Orange County Register, April 10, 2003 (obituary)
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