Willey was born on March 11, 1821, in Campton, NH, where he spent his youth before coming to KUA in 1839-40. According to the 1840 school catalogue, he was one of 24 seniors in the Classical Department (not included in its list, the 10 ladies also in that department). Willey and 12 classmates went on to Dartmouth College where he graduated in 1845. He then studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1848.
While serving under the American Home Missionary Society, Willey, at age 27, was appointed a missionary based in Monterey, California, a place he reached by way of Panama City. He served churches in San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Cruz and Benecia, and was the chaplain at the 1849 Constitutional Convention of the State of California.
In 1849, he established the first public library in Monterey and, after he married Martha Jeffers in 1850, moved to San Francisco “…where he led a ‘Children’s March’ of hundreds of children through the streets…successfully agitating for a public school system.” As “a pioneer missionary and educator,” Willey had a deep interest in education, especially for girls, Native American and emigrant Mexican children. He was one of 12 prominent residents of Benecia who founded the Young Ladies Seminary that later moved to Oakland, now known as Mills College. From 1889-1896, the Van Ness Seminary in San Francisco, a school for “genteel” ladies, was under Willey’s direction until acquired by Miss Sarah Hamlin who gave it its present name, Hamlin School.
Willey is widely known for his part in the founding of the University of California at Berkeley. In 1853, he and the Rev. Henry Durant founded the Contra Costa Academy in a former fandango house, as a school for young men seeking higher education. Two years later, the Academy was incorporated into the College of California with Willey and Durant actively raising money to support the young college.
By 1860, the college campus was located over four city blocks in what is now downtown Oakland, while they continued to look for a place large enough to expand into a university. On April 16, 1860, a meeting was held on what is known as “Founders rock” located on a hillside north of Oakland where there was plenty of land to grow; today it is known as the Berkeley campus. “On June 9 1868, the College of California deeded to the Regents of the University of California, 168 acres of land in Berkeley” and the four city blocks. Willey served as vice president of the college from 1850-1872 and offered the benediction at Berkeley’s first commencement in 1873.
Willey was given a Doctor of Divinity degree from Dartmouth in 1875 and in 1910, a Doctor of Laws degree by the president of the University of California who said of him at graduation, “It has been given to you to see the hilltop of vision transmuted into a mountain of fulfillment, and a dim focused future dissolve upon a screen into a firm, clear present. The prayer you offered when the foundations of this Commonwealth were laid found its largest answer through the institution you established. Your life is a bond between our beginning and our present, between your dream and its embodiment, between your prayer and its answer. Upon you the foremost benefactor of California, first citizen of the State, I confer the degree of Doctor of Laws.”
Willey spent his last years in Berkeley where he died in 1914 at age 93. In 2010, 170 years after his graduation from Kimball Union, Willey became, posthumously, the recipient of the Kimball Union Alumni Council Achievers Award at reunion.
Next time: Kate E. Morris, class of 1875, received the first Radcliffe College and first Smith College Ph.D. in 1882.