Bill Woolley

Bill Woolley briefly speaks to Ripon Rotarians at a Barlow Park shelter after receiving his second Paul Harris Fellowship. Woolley is the service club’s former president.

Two weeks ago the Ripon Rotary Club awarded its highest honor, the Paul Harris Fellowship, to two men who each made significant and lasting contributions to this community.

Last week’s editorial told the tale of a former Ripon mayor, David Gray, whose single term of in office from 1986 to 1988 stabilized Ripon after it had been reeling from four years of rancor. This week’s editorial describes an extraordinary Ripon College professor for whom teaching was a profession and remains an avocation.

History professor Bill Woolley and several of his senior students goose-stepped into the Ripon College classroom wearing brown shirts with swastika armbands.

They authoritatively presided over the gathering of confused if not unnerved students, acting as if theirs was a classroom several decades earlier in Nazi Germany.

“When it worked well, the students had to figure out what was going on and then decide whether they wanted to go along with the game,” Woolley said. “If they chose to do so, it gave some them some sense of what it might have really been like in Nazi Germany.”

Before retiring from Ripon College, where he taught from 1969 to 2000, Woolley occasionally used classroom simulations to help students viscerally understand historical developments about which textbook descriptions proved inadequate.

His most successful was a four-session simulation of the Russian Revolution with a group of students acting out being members of the Bolshevik (Communist) central committee trying to figure out how they should respond to specific situations that occurred during the revolution.

Who wouldn’t want a professor like that?

Ripon College students did.

So endeared were they to their professor’s passion for making history literally come alive that senior classes awarded him their teaching award no fewer than eight times.

Woolley’s dedication to learning and teaching history, coupled with his academic rigor evidenced by many publications and scholarly activities, made him particularly popular among his students.

Emmy-award winning broadcast journalist Helen Holter referred to him as a “legend” upon receiving Ripon College’s Distinguished Alumni Citation in 2013. Good people earn awards; great people help other people win awards.

While teaching at the college, Woolley found time to present art to Ripon’s elementary schools, teach Ripon scouts about opera; narrate a slide show on Swiss castles to first graders; and offer a weekly course on Polish history primarily for the benefit of elderly Polish people in our community.

Upon retiring, Woolley became president of the Ripon Historical Society and Ripon Rotary; served on the Little White Schoolhouse board of directors; and chaired the Ripon Public Library board, the Ripon Zoning Review Board, the Ripon College Retiree Association and the Ripon College Ethical Leadership Program Task Force.

Now into his 20th year of retirement, Woolley is completing a book, “Creating the Citizen Army: An Institutional History of the United States Army, 1919-1939.” The publisher is the University of Kansas Press, the nation’s leading publisher of books on military history.

He and his wife Jean now live in a senior residence in Germantown, where he continues his volunteer work, chiefly by presenting enrichment programs dealing with history. Three weeks ago he gave a presentation on “Monarchs and Mistresses”—with his own pictures. More recently he talked about the North Platte Canteen, a railroad stop in North Platte Nebraska that provided coffee, food and comfort to servicemen passing through during World War II.

If the folks in Germantown ever learn that one of their own once dared to don a Nazi swastika, we could only wish they’d send Woolley back to Ripon where he is treasured for all he has done for our college and community.

— Tim Lyke

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