From his first encounter with William Bass, P. Willey (’82) knew he wanted to become an anthropologist. You might even say his future was ordained.
“He was my eighth grade Sunday school teacher,” said Willey of Bass, who would go on to become his mentor, teacher, and eventual colleague. “He didn’t teach us much about the Bible, but he would sneak bones in.”
Willey grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, where Bass was on the faculty of the University of Kansas before coming to UT, and the two maintained their connection in the following years. Willey went on to earn degrees in anthropology at Kansas and Penn State, doing fieldwork at numerous prehistoric sites.
He rejoined his mentor at UT in 1975 as curator of Bass’s human skeleton collection, working toward his doctoral degree at the same time. “It was wonderful,” Willey says. “I was able to get a degree with no debt.”
After finishing his degree, Willey stayed on as curator of archaeological specimens until 1989 and was able to be part of the creation of what he laughingly called the “paleo FAC.”
Being accustomed to working with much older remains, his transition into forensics work took some getting used to. He says, “Our lab was down in the basement of South Stadium—when a police car pulled in the parking area or a hearse pulled in, nobody could beat me back to the restrooms to lock myself in until it was taken care of.”
Eventually forensics won him over. “It was the stories behind those cases that really were gripping,” he says.
And it’s been the stories that have held his interest in the years since: “The skull found behind an e-cycle bin, cutting holes in the floor of a 19th-century house to put in new plumbing and discovering there’s a basement and in the basement, there’s half a skull, a gold prospector with a metal detector last winter who finds gold, but it’s a gold bridge—teeth that have gold caps. It’s just these phenomenal things that go on.”
Willey was recently named professor emeritus on his retirement from California State University, Chico, where he’s served on the faculty since leaving UT. He plans to stay involved in forensics work—including the study of a pit filled with bones discovered near the site of a Civil War–era hospital north of San Francisco—and to continue his 17-year service with the Department of Defense on identification of POW and MIA remains.
“It has been a great career,” he says. I can’t imagine it being any more fun. And all of that is thanks to Dr. Bass.”
Photo: Jason Halley/California State University, Chico