Obituaries: Professor Ronald Willetts

Tony Nicholls
Saturday 06 March 1999 00:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


RONALD WILLETTS was a Greek scholar and lecturer at Birmingham University for nearly 40 years, specialising in Cretan studies. His scholarship was largely concerned with social conditions and customs. Beginning with his Aristocratic Society in Ancient Crete (1955), he went on to produce several monographs covering other aspects of Cretan life including Everyday Life in Ancient Crete (1969) and The Civilization of Ancient Crete (1977).

Although he had an acute ear and a great grasp of grammar and language, Willetts did not consider himself to be a textual critic of the traditional kind, though he did contribute various textual and other items to the classical periodicals, many of which were reprinted in Selected Papers in 1988. He did, however, show his textual skills in what is probably his most important work of scholarship, his definitive edition with commentary of The Law Code of Gortyn (1967).

He was born in 1915 in Halesowen, Worcestershire. His first instruction in the Classics was at Halesowen Grammar School, from where he went to read Classics at Birmingham University, graduating with a first in 1937. He studied for his MA in 1938, then took a Diploma in Education in 1939, followed by a year as a schoolmaster. From 1940 to 1946 he was on war service, and it was while he was in India that he met and married his wife Jane Vann, who became a strong influence and support throughout his life. He returned to join the Department of Greek at Birmingham in 1946, and remained there until his retirement, as professor and head of department, in 1981.

It is difficult at this distance to appreciate the artistic and intellectual ferment of the Faculty of Arts at Birmingham in the 1930s. Louis MacNeice, Henry Reed, W.H. Auden, Walter Allen and the other members of the "Birmingham Group" were around and very active; Sargent Florence's sumptuous house was open to all with something to contribute to the discussions. All of this Willetts absorbed; it was at this time that he began to write and develop his own distinctive poetry.

In his Greek studies he came under the influence of E.R. Dodds, who has himself written movingly about this time. Dodds moved to Oxford in 1936, and his chair was taken by George Thomson, who was to become another great influence on Willetts's scholarship and thinking. Their contact then was brief, but long enough for Thomson to recognise the young Willetts's ability. And so, after war service, Willetts joined the department as a lecturer, and entered another unusual period.

At this point, the ex-servicemen and women were coming into universities with several years of wartime experiences of many kinds. Those who were there in the late Forties still testify that it was like no other entry of students and staff. For the Greek students especially the whole of the Odyssey had a new meaning; we too, Willetts and his students, had "seen the cities of many peoples and learned their ways"; like Odysseus, we knew what it was to long for the sight of the smoke arising from our own land.

Willetts shared a similar world view with his departmental head, and was in full agreement with Thomson's introduction of a preliminary year of Greek, for those classics students who had learned no Greek at school; already in those days the number who had studied the language before university was rapidly declining.

Willetts was not a natural administrator (if there be such a being): indeed he could become impatient of tasks which took him from teaching and writing. Towards the end of his career he inevitably became increasingly involved in university government, being chairman of his department for six years, and a governor of the university from 1967. He was also Public Orator for five years to his retirement: a role which he took seriously; he spent much time and effort gathering facts and polishing the text of his speeches. By this time, he felt that his contribution to Cretan studies was complete, and so the chores of administration were perhaps not so distasteful.

The poetical side of his output did not decline with his increased duties, and he wrote steadily, producing a series of volumes from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. It must, in a way, have been a disappointment to Willetts that few of his students made a great mark in classical studies; but we remember with great affection his enthusiastic teaching, and the love of the literature which he gave us; and, perhaps a little shamefacedly, we have to admit that from time to time we relished drawing from him his pithy and witty comments on other members of staff.

Ronald Frederick Willetts, Greek scholar: born Halesowen, Worcestershire 2 April 1915; Lecturer in Greek, Birmingham University 1946-58, Senior Lecturer 1958- 63, Reader 1963-70, Professor 1970-81 (Emeritus), Chairman of Department 1975-81, Governor 1967-81, Public Orator 1975-80; married 1945 Jane Vann (one daughter); died Birmingham 19 February 1999.

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