From IWU Magazine, Winter 2011-12
Through Summer Music Camp, Maurice Willis brought the joy of music to thousands.
Story by SARAH (ZELLER) JULIAN ’07
Willis (above, second from right) talked with students after a rehearsal at the IWU
Summer Music Camp.
When Professor Maurice Willis died Oct. 12, 2011, he left behind an impression on
those who knew him and shared his love of music.
A faculty member of the Illinois Wesleyan School of Music for 33 years, the man affectionately
known as “Uncle Maury” captured the hearts and minds of students as well as counselors
in the music camp he led for more than three decades.
The IWU Summer Music Camp was founded in 1952 by the late Carl Neumeyer, then director
of the School of Music. Willis started at the camp during its first year as an assistant
before taking the reins as camp director in 1957. The camp — which included band,
orchestra and choir activities — attracted students in sixth grade through high school
seniors and employed many IWU alumni as counselors. The group of staff got together
every year, even after Willis retired from leading the camps in 1983, and considered
“We really are a closely knit group,” Willis recalled in a 1981 interview after his
retirement. “We all enjoy each other’s company and enjoy the camp and look forward
to coming each summer.”
Many of the alumni he influenced went on to dedicate their lives to music education,
including Dick Casper ’59, who retired from teaching after 32 years as the Peoria
Public School orchestra director. “Maury depended heavily on his loyal staff for the
smooth operation of the music camp. The members of his staff were extremely dedicated
and returned year after year to be a part of this event,” he recalled.
“In the early years, Maury could only pay us with aftershave, perfumes, key chains
and the like, but we kept returning because we loved camp and highly respected him,”
Casper said. “We always said that we had more fun at camp than the kids, and I think
we actually did. We would have done it for free.”
“Uncle Maury” showed his fun side, donning a top hat at a recent reunion of camp counselors.
In its earlier years, the camp was held at East Bay Camp at Lake Bloomington. In 1977,
however, a fire destroyed the building used for rehearsals and performances, and the
camp was moved to Wesleyan’s campus.
Despite their hard work, the staff members had plenty of free time for humor. “One
day when the staff members were gathered outside the staff house at East Bay Camp,
we were all very surprised to see Uncle Maury riding around on a bicycle wearing a
large straw hat,” recalled Sara “Sally” Simpson ’70. “No one even knew he could ride
a bike! What a laugh we all had that day!”
Casper remembered a string of pranks that counselors played on the camp leader. “Maury
would take naps in his room at the staff office building. On numerous occasions, we
would stack pop cans in front of his door so that when he opened the door, the cans
would crash to the floor. We would also put masking tape in a spider-web effect across
his door. We Vaselined his toilet seat.”
The alumni grew with the camp, returning even as they advanced in their careers, often
during summers between graduate studies or full-time teaching jobs. “His staff was
mostly made up of active music teachers who had responsible positions in schools throughout
the country,” said Lloyd “Yates” Brackney ’59. “As crazy as we were, he knew that
we always were serious about giving the young people a great musical experience.”
Wayne Groess ‘63 remembers his work as the camp’s recreation director. “Being a liberal
arts major, I was not directly involved in the music portion of camp,” he said. Instead,
Groess spent his time organizing volleyball tournaments and skit nights. In 2002,
he donated the money to build a new steel bridge at East Bay Camp, replacing a 70-year-old
Participating in the camp led the way for the career of Carleen Graff ’68, now a music
professor at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, N.H. She first met Willis when
she was a 16-year-old student at his camp and later spent 15 years working as a counselor.
“The IWU music camp has influenced much of what I do today,” she said. “In 1993, I
began the summer Piano Monster Festivals here at Plymouth State, which are modeled
after Maury’s schedule and overall concepts of camp.”
As her own camp has grown, her memories of the time she spent at the IWU camp persist.
“I remember fondly, almost every day, my days at the IWU camps and their inspiration
to me and our camps, which will celebrate 20 years this summer.”
In October, the group of former camp staff united once again in honor of Maurice Willis.
“As proof of our love for this man, almost all of his loyal staff attended his funeral
service,” Casper said. Alumni traveled from as far as New Orleans and New Hampshire.
“We who have been so close to Maury all these many years will miss his presence at
our annual reunions, but memories are a wonderful thing and will continue to support
us in the coming years.”