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University community remembers former KU theatre director Ron Willis

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

LAWRENCE — The University of Kansas community is grieving the loss of a faculty member who, for 30 years, helped shape the Department of Theatre.

Ron Willis, professor emeritus of theatre, died March 6 at his home in Lawrence. 

He taught at KU from 1970 until 2000, when he retired. During his tenure, he served as director of theatre from 1976 to 1989 and also as department chair. 

“On behalf of the entire KU community, I offer my sympathies to Ron’s family, friends, colleagues and the many alumni who were fortunate to have known him as a teacher and director,” said Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. “For three decades he helped make KU a creative space and guided students to share that creativity beyond our campus borders.”

Along with writing the book “Fragile Magic: A Guidebook for Theatre Respondents,” Willis was both playwriting awards chair and national committee chair for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and received a Gold Medallion for Outstanding Service. He was a member of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre and a nationally recognized theatre adjudicator. 

“Ron was a friend, mentor and artist,” said Delbert Unruh, professor of theatre. “He also was possessed of the finest, most pure sense of humor any human being ever had. A great light has gone out.” 

Fellow professor of theatre John Gronbeck-Tedesco called Willis "a public intellectual in the best sense." 

“He was willing to talk to anyone about anything and on their terms,” Gronbeck-Tedesco said. “He enjoyed thinking out loud with others. He loved nothing more than wholesome disagreement. Discussions with Ron always had the feel of a good party.”

A celebration of his life will be 3 p.m. Saturday, March 14, in the Crafton-Preyer Theatre. A mass of Christian burial was Tuesday, March 10.