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ACU Remembers: Dr. John Willis


Dr. John Willis

Moody Coliseum was nearly new in 1971 and half the buildings on today’s Abilene Christian University campus had not been built when Dr. John Thomas Willis (’55) returned to his native Abilene, Texas, with his wife and four school-aged children. 

He brought 15 years experience on the faculty at Lipscomb University and a scholarly vitae including publications in professional journals of international standing. Three years later he was honored with the Trustees Award as Abilene Christian’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year, an honor he repeated 32 years later during his alma mater’s Centennial.

Willis – ACU’s Burton Coffman Chair for Biblical Studies and professor emeritus of Bible, Missions and Ministry died Aug. 21, 2023, in Abilene, Texas, at age 89. Arrangements are pending.

Born Nov. 21, 1933, in Abilene, he grew up there, graduated from Abilene High School and enrolled in ACU, earning a bachelor’s degree in Greek in 1955 and a master’s in Old Testament in 1956, just months after marrying Evelyn Forrest (’56) and shortly before moving to Nashville to join the faculty at Lipscomb.

Baptized at Abilene’s Highland Church of Christ in 1946, he would later serve there as an elder for nearly five decades. Dr. David Wray (’67), faculty emeritus in the College of Biblical Studies and former director of ACU’s Summit, served with him 37 of those years. 

“He was one of the most remarkable elders I have ever been around. While he was a scholar, he also provided a great blend of pastoral care with theological practices and reflections,” said Wray, who also expressed amazement at the hospitality of John and Evelyn, who hosted countless meals in the Willis home and local restaurants through the years and had a special interest in making international students feel loved and at home.

Willis’ prodigious scholarly agenda never kept him from energetic service to the congregations where he preached. 


Dr. John Willis

While still an undergraduate student, he preached four years at Truby (Texas) Church of Christ, 21 miles northeast of Abilene. Upon moving to Nashville he preached four years at Maple Hill in Lebanon, Tennessee, and five more at Pennsylvania Avenue in Nashville.

While in Nashville he began doctoral studies at Vanderbilt University, completing his Ph.D. and dissertation on the Old Testament book of Micah in 1966. Then in 1971 the family returned to Abilene, where Willis became the professor undergraduates loved for the cookies he handed out in class, and graduate students feared for his detailed critiques of their papers.

“It was different as a grad student because he sort of bled all over your papers,” said Dr. Ken Cukrowski (’84), associate professor of New Testament and dean of the College of Biblical Studies. “He was meticulous. He went over every line of your paper. He invested a lot of time. Just indefatigable.”

Perhaps no man of such slight stature ever had such a giant impact on students and colleagues.

Willis was the teacher who for decades knew every student’s name in huge sophomore-level Old Testament classes and remembered their birthdays. In the 1970s, students stood in long lines in Moody Coliseum during registration for classes to gain the coveted data punch cards that reserved their seats in Genesis through Esther or Job through Malachi, or as Willis liked to say it, “Gen-EEE-sis through Esther, and Job through Ma-LAH-chee.”

If they came for the cookies he passed out at the beginning of every class, they stayed for the wisdom and wit. And for years he and Evelyn filled their home on Campus Court every Sunday night with students, serving spaghetti or some other student-loved but low-cost meal. 

Nearby, the couple was a fixture at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store on Highway 351, where a framed photo of them sits on the fireplace mantel in tribute to the untold number of meals they hosted for students and other friends. Jason’s Deli, just down the street, was another favorite Willis mealtime venue to share with their mentees of all ages. 

When he transitioned in 2015 to senior scholar with a half-time course load, John’s only question to Cukrowski was, “Will I still be able to teach students and have an office up here where I can see the students?” He did.

It was always about the students.


John and Evelyn Willis in 2006

Of his 61 years in the classroom, 46 were devoted to ACU. Only one other Bible professor, the late Dr. Neil Lightfoot, taught more years on the Hill than Willis (47, from 1958-2005). 

By the time he retired in 2017, Willis had given away somewhere between a half million and a million cookies to Wildcat students. A conservative estimate of 200 students per year would seat more than 16,000 in his classrooms – whether the old Roberson Chapel in the Hardin Administration Building or one of the lecture halls in Onstead-Packer Biblical Studies Building. Even those who never took one of his classes knew the diminutive man with the twinkle in his eye and slow, thoughtful way of speaking. 

Often unknown by those sophomores was the depth and duration of Willis’ scholarship. He wrote approximately 30 books and 100 scholarly articles in Old Testament studies and was associate editor of Old Testament Abstracts for many years. He remained an active scholar even as he entered retirement.

He was a prolific author of books, including Lord, Teach Us to Pray: A Study of Prayer in the Bible (2023), Images of Water in Isaiah (2017); Yahweh and Moses in Conflict: The Role of Exodus 4:24-26 in the Book of Exodus (2010); Message of the Old Testament (1989); The World and Literature of the Old Testament (1984); and The Old Testament Literature: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon (1982). 

In the mid-1980s, Willis authored three volumes of The Living Word Commentary on the Old Testament: Genesis, Isaiah, and I and II Samuel. Volumes he authored in The Way of Life Series include My Servants the Prophets (1984), The Old Testament Wisdom Literature (1982), The Message of Old Testament History (1977), and Insights From the Psalms (1974).

In 1999, former students and colleagues authored Worship and the Hebrew Bible: Essays in Honor of John T. Willis. Dr. Mark Hamilton (’90 M.Div.), professor of Old Testament, and Willis’ son, Dr. Tim Willis (’81), professor of religion at Pepperdine University, edited Instruction Shall Go Forth: Studies in Micah and Isaiah, a collection of John’s articles in 2014.

Beginning with his dissertation on Micah, Willis helped pioneer a major shift in the field of Old Testament studies. “He continued to participate in the long-running seminar on the book of Isaiah held at the annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting,” Hamilton said. “There he was, I assure you, a luminary, one of the sages of old, yes, but also one who continued to write and present.”

Cukrowski credits Willis among legendary Bible professors who put ACU on the theological map.

Drs. Willis, Abe Malherbe (’54) and Everett Ferguson Jr. (’53) were kind of pioneers – Dr. LeMoine Lewis (’36) got it started. We have more than 200 folks who have graduated from this college who went on for doctorates – more than any other program on campus. That began with that crew,” Cukrowski said.

Yet Willis never expected special treatment, never complained about course load, never angled to get the best classes. 

“He loved teaching and loved students so it didn’t really matter for him whether it was undergrad or grad,” Cukrowski said. When Abilene Christian launched its University 100 program for first-year students, Willis was the first faculty member to be named University Seminar Teacher of the Year.

Willis twice delivered the address to students at ACU’s Commencement, in August 1979 and May 2009, and he and Evelyn were voted co-marshals of the Homecoming Parade in 1998 and 2017.


Dr. John Willis teaching in 2017

When given the opportunity to make a final Chapel talk, the international Old Testament scholar just stuck with the theme for the semester – spiritual disciplines – and chose the discipline of listening.

“I mean, to pay attention to the words of God and the words of Christ,” Willis told the audience. “Hearing, listening, giving heed, yielding to advice, is a fundamental Christ-led discipline. … If we would just be willing to listen to what Jesus said, Jesus can change our hearts. While we thoughtlessly set our minds on things on earth, Jesus guides us to set our minds on things that are above.”

Willis was preceded in death by his parents, Cullen (’28) and Madge Willis; Evelyn, his wife of 66 years; and a brother, Dickson Willis (’56). Among survivors are sons David Willis (’79) and wife Danna of American Samoa, Dr. Timothy Willis (’81) and wife Jan (Davis ’83) of Malibu, California, and Paul Willis (’83) of Minneapolis, Minnesota; daughter Deborah (Willis ’80) Doss and husband Stuart of Pearland, Texas; 14 grandchildren; and 11 great grandchildren.

Memorials may be made to the John and Evelyn Endowed Scholarship at ACU (Gift Records, ACU Box 29132, Abilene, Texas 79699-9132).

– Dr. Cheryl Mann Bacon

Aug. 22, 2023

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