By: LESLIE LESTINSKY
Walking into Professor Willig’s office, one quickly takes note he is a busy professor, sizing up the multitude of projects scattered throughout his office.
“During this semester, I’m going to get to the bottom of this,” he said.
He explains he’s not quite tenure, should be official mid-summer.
“I’m glad, it’s been a long haul,” he said. “This is my fifth year full time.”
Willig began at IU South Bend as an adjunct professor in 2003. He finished his PhD in Feb. 2003 and defended his dissertation in December 2002 at University of Massachusetts. Around that time, there was an opening at IUSB, but Willig didn’t get it.
He took a job in Syracuse New York at State University of New York.
“I did not think I would be coming back [to IUSB], but I was teaching five or six courses a semester and overseeing the history program,” he said. “It was getting to be a real grind. The library was great. Pay was great. There were many aspects of the job that were great, but when this job opened, I threw my hat into the ring.”
These days he is busier than ever working on a second book, overseeing the history club, chairing the general studies committee, administrative work, working on the curriculum committee and indigenous world inter-university committee with the dean.
Willig was raised in Goshen. His dad taught at Northridge High School in Middlebury. As he talks you get the sense that he knows just about everyone in the area.
His connections seem to run deep and wide. He tells of his relationships with current and former students, walks, talks and coffee.
Willig spoke about one of his six publications, “Restoring a Chain of Friendship,” which came out in 2008.
“It was an expansion of my PhD dissertation. I have a passion for the British Empire, which is probably an understatement. I love how the empire interacted with indigenous peoples, and even though times weren’t the best, they seemed to be able to come to understandings and status quos better than other European nations that just wanted to exterminate people,” he said.
“The British had finesse like that. I have a deep appreciation for the British Empire, but I wanted to overlap that with another interest of mine, which is Native Americans, especially Native Americans east of the Mississippi and how they dealt with Europeans,” he said.
“The dissertation was successful and I had a wonderful mentor. My PhD mentor, Gerald McFarland and his wife who is a professional editor, helped me to get my dissertation to where they thought I could lasso a book contract. In January 2003 I was at the American Historical Association conference in Chicago and met with some publishers, one being University of Nebraska Press. They were very interested; within a month they wanted me to send the whole manuscript. I did, and long story short, by October 2003, I had the book contract. I didn’t know at that point the real work began. That was a huge lesson to me. I learned then an author’s work is never done. Writing is always rewriting. No matter how many times you do it, it can always be better.”
His book was nominated for six awards, one of them being the Bancroft award. Willig is now working on his second book for the contract, a biographical study of Major John Norton.
Despite his success in the field, Willig wasn’t always a historian. He first studied mathematics and physics at Grace College, an Evangelical Christian school.
“I had to sign a Christian commitment. Sometimes I would hop on my bike and go over to the fun center [an arcade] when I was supposed to be in church. I was on the baseball team, played first base,” Willig said of his college days.
“My dad warned me, if you want to coach baseball, don’t teach social studies. There are not many people with a math degree coaching. You’ll be able to compete better. But my heart was in history,” he said.
Willig said he has noticed some students seem preoccupied with what to major in when they really just ought to focus on doing well.
“Few of us end up working fulltime and retiring in a field we pursued as undergrads,” he said. “Our dreams evolve as we get older but they are still rewarding. Persistence and diligence, having the ability to endure and continue to believe in yourself, that’s half the battle. If you think you can’t, you won’t. Students need to focus on just getting a degree.”