Macalester remembers Alex Willis

By Emma WestRasmus

Work passionately for whatever you believe in strongly, read the fortune cookie that Alex Willis ’13 always kept in his bedroom, a phrase that Willis sought to live out in everything he did. Willis died in an automobile accident in Massachusetts this summer, but will be remembered for his passion for socialism and grassroots movements, his sarcastic sense of humor and his gift for creating an inclusive community, even in just one year at Macalester.

Willis was in the rear passenger seat of a car while visiting his girlfriend Mollie Beebe ’13. Beebe was injured when the car drove off the road and rolled several times, but Willis did not survive the crash.

“As both a college president and a parent, I found the news of Alex’s death absolutely heartbreaking,” said President Brian Rosenberg in an email. “Such losses are simply the worst things that can happen to a community like Macalester’s. My heart goes out to Alex’s family and friends.”

A memorial service was held for Willis in Weyerhaeuser Memorial Chapel Fri., Sept. 24. More than 100 Macalester community members gathered to share stories of Willis and offer support for grieving classmates. Nearly all in attendance were members of the class of 2013, with some faculty, staff and administrators dotting the crowd.

Also present in the front row of the chapel were Willis’s parents, Nancy and Robert, and his younger sister Rebecca, 15. Alex’s younger brother, Jonathan, 18, was not able to attend, as he is a freshman at Penn State University.

Nancy Willis, Alex’s mother, expressed gratitude for the chance to be around Alex’s friends and gain insight into his life at Mac through the snippets of stories shared at the memorial.

“The service was beautiful and really appreciated. It was heartbreaking because it made me miss him,” Nancy Willis said. “This school was such a perfect fit and he was so excited to come back this fall for his sophomore year and new classes.”

While Nancy Willis acknowledged that being at the service accentuated the absence of her son, she said that ultimately it was “wonderful to see that he was loved and cared about. It was an honor to be there.”

Over the course of the hour and a half long service, over two dozen of Willis’s friends stood at the candlelit podium in the center of the chapel to share their memories of the would-be sophomore. Willis was described by many who spoke as a passionate socialist with a bent for social justice and Latin American politics, one who was always ready to talk revolution and social movements whether in his friends’ Dupre Hall dorm rooms late at night, at Café Mac or over a cup of his favorite coffee at Shish on Grand Ave.

Several students spoke of a memorable walk down to the Mississippi River last winter with Willis and a group of friends, when one of his friends fell through the ice on the river into waist-deep water and couldn’t walk the mile and a half back to campus in his soaking pants. Without missing a beat, Willis took off his pants and gave them to the freezing friend, walking back to campus wearing only his long underwear, with a pair of wet pants hanging over his shoulder.

Kalie Caetano ’13 described the event in a letter she sent to the Willis family after Alex’s death, and shared part of the letter at the memorial service. Caetano drew laughter when she recounted Alex’s fear on the walk up Summit Ave. back to campus. “Everyone must think I’m some strange breed of hipster,” Caetano recalled Willis saying.”Alex taught me how to be cool,” said friend Micah Mumper ’13. He said Willis showed him that “you don’t have to be extroverted or gregarious to be cool. You just need to be true to yourself, to your values.”

Shawn Greene ’13 was one of Alex’s closest friends on campus, his “unofficial roommate.” Greene planned the service along with several other students and Assistant Director for Religious and Spiritual Life K.P. Hong.

“Alex was one of the best friends I’ve ever had,” said Greene. He said they wanted to keep the service as informal as possible, and decided to keep it as true to Alex’s personality as possible. A screen was set up in the center of the chapel with rotating photos of Alex from freshman year, and as people filtered into the chapel they were treated to the sounds of Alex’s favorite songs, ranging from Frank Zappa and the Beatles to Inti Illimani and The Talking Heads.

“The primary goal of the service was to give the family closure and a glimpse into the last year of his life, and to give students a chance to express memories,” Greene said.

Dean of Students Jim Hoppe noted that a student death impacts the Macalester community in a particularly intense way because of the size and interconnectedness of the student body.

“It’s a small place and we get to know people individually,” Hoppe said.

Though Hoppe didn’t know Alex personally last year, he says he feels like he’s gotten to know Alex since his passing through the stories and memories he heard since Alex’s death on July 9. Along with a handful of current Mac students, Hoppe traveled to Lima, Penn. for Willis’ July 24 memorial service.

The sense of unfulfilled promise and potential is perhaps what weighs heaviest on those who knew Alex and are grieving his absence. David Blaney, Chair of the Political Science department, was slated to become Alex’s advisor this fall, after Alex took Blaney’s Development Politics course last spring and connected with both the academic subject material and the professor.

“He really connected with the course and all the students interested in development knew him,” Blaney said. “We were just starting to make a connection-him with the subject, and he and I. He was so bright and I looked forward to working with him.”

Alex will be remembered on campus as a radical and passionate social justice advocate who was dedicated to bringing about change in the world. Friend and fellow sophomore Kerem Siral described him as “a future Che Guevara” who was consummately dedicated to following his ideals. According to Greene, Willis was planning on going to Latin America after graduation to pursue his interests in Spanish, Latin American activism and organizing.

“He was a hardcore socialist, and dedicated to anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism,” Greene said.

Despite his deep-seated personal beliefs, Willis was also able to approach his academic work with an objectivity that impressed the faculty he worked with.

“He certainly had the reputation of a socialist, but I was always impressed with how measured and reasonable he was in his written work,” Blaney said. But Willis still infused his well-reasoned analysis with his creativity and larger vision for the world.

“He was willing to think outside of the intellectual boxes available at the moment,” Blaney said.

Hong opened the memorial service and set a reflective tone with a poem by Robert Bly. “Go on, be cheerful in autumn/Be stoic, yes, be tranquil, calm/Or in the valley of sorrows spread your wings,” Hong read.

The sentiment of holding on to the memories and stories that defined Alex while honoring his memory by living with the same compassion and spark that Alex exemplified is a balance that Nancy Willis hopes those who knew her son will carry with them.

“Our family will never be the same, and I’m heartbroken that things will never be the same again,” Nancy Willis said. “I feel bad that his friends lost a good friend at such a young age.”

But Willis also expressed the desire that her son’s friends and the Macalester community will live with the same passion and sense of commitment that Alex did. She also hopes that those whose lives were touched by her son will go on to pursue what they care most deeply about, have families and live the lives that they dream of.

“I’m in anguish that Alex won’t, but it is my ultimate hope that others will get a chance to live full lives.