North American Scholar

WILLIS, Samuel John

  • Image
  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1877-07-28
  • Born City: Kingston
  • Born State/Country: PEI
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1947-04-24
  • Death City: Victoria
  • Death State/Country: BC
  • Married: Grace Elinor Nisbet, 27 December 1905
  • Education:

    Study at Prince of Wales Coll. (Charlottetown, PEI); B.A. McGill, 1900; LL.D. McGill, 1921; U. British Columbia, 1946.

  • Professional Experience:

    Tchr. Victoria HS (BC), 1901-8; princ. Victoria HS & Coll. (dean & prof, class. McGill U. Coll. of British Columbia), 1908-16; asso. prof, class. U. British Columbia, 1916-9; supt. educ. British Columbia, 1919-45; deputy min. educ. 1928-45; chair, Victoria College Council, 1945-7; pres. Canadian Education Association.

  • Notes:

    During the early decades of the 20th century, public education in British Columbia was guided mainly by academic emigrants from Atlantic Canada, especially by a group of vigorous scholars from the tiny Province of Prince Edward Island. Perhaps the most distinguished of these pioneers was Samuel John Willis, a brilliant classicist who made his mark as a high-school principal, a gifted teacher of university Latin, and an eminent superintendent of education for the Province of British Columbia. After graduating with First Rank Honors in Classics, he was lured by the siren song from the Pacific coast and moved at once to Victoria. At the precocious age of 31, he became principal of Victoria High School and College. This strong institution had already secured academic affiliation with McGill in 1902, by an administrative change in 1908 it became known as McGill University College of British Columbia (Victoria), with Willis as its dean and professor of classics. Victoria students were offered a limited curriculum of McGill courses in first and second years, as were students at a parallel college in Vancouver. In order to guarantee uniformity of academic standards, the British Columbia colleges followed the same syllabus as the parent campus in Montreal, adopting a system of common examinations.Willis' brilliance as a teacher can be gauged by the fact that in 1909 two of his first-year Latin students ranked first and second in competition with other McGill students on the main campus and in Vancouver. In 1912, eight of the first nine Latinists in second-year Arts were Willis’s Victoria candidates, an achievement all the more impressive in view of McGill's outstanding reputation at that time. During his 15 years at Victoria College, his former students routinely won gold medals and other honors. Upon completing their studies in Montreal, three became Rhodes Scholars from British Columbia, and at least a dozen went on to distinguished careers in higher education.To his role as superintendent of education he brought the same scholarly zeal and dedication that he had shown as a teacher, building one of the finest systems of public education in the continent. A superb administrator and a consummate leader, he insisted always upon the paramount importance of humanistic values in public education. When Samuel Willis died, Education Minister G. M. Weir paid this high tribute to his former deputy: "He left the imprint of his personality and vision on the school system of British Columbia to a greater extent than that of any other educationist who has served the province since its formation in 1871. No teacher was ever held in higher esteem."

  • Sources:

    UBC archives.

  • Author: Peter L. Smith