A Life Remembered | UI English professor, author recalled for brilliance

A Life Remembered | UI English professor, author recalled for brilliance

CHAMPAIGN — An award-winning author and UI English professor for nearly three decades, Emily Watts could have easily carved out a career in math as well.

In the 1950s, when Emily Ann Stipes Watts was a student at Central High School and the space race was just beginning, she and only one other Central student qualified for a program recruiting the brightest of young math minds. But the male student was chosen, said Ed Watts, her middle son.

That young man, Harold Edwards, went on to become a well-known mathematician, earning his doctorate from Harvard.

But fortunately for the UI, Mrs. Watts eventually became a full professor of English, which was her calling, according to her son, a professor at Michigan State University.

"She was a good scholar, a great teacher," he said, adding that he has received so many emails and messages from former students of Mrs. Watts, 81, since her passing on Monday in Urbana. He said his mother was very demanding but thoughtful of her students.

"She was what a professor was supposed to be in every way, really," he said, explaining that she loved literature from the start, majored in the classics and became an expert on Ernest Hemingway.

A 1954 Central High graduate, Mrs. Watts earned her bachelor's degree at the UI in 1958, then master's in 1959 as a Woodrow Wilson National fellow and finished up with her doctorate in 1963. As a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellow in 1973-74, she completed her first book, "Ernest Hemingway and the Arts," which won the Modern Language Association's Scholars Library Award.

Jim Vermette, CEO of the University of Illinois Alumni Association from 1967 to 1983, said Mrs. Watts was a brilliant person, straightforward, fair and an excellent writer.

"It's a real loss," he said of Mrs. Watts, who would have celebrated her 82nd birthday on Friday. "But a life well-lived, that's for sure."

Vermette said she was one of the smartest people he ever knew, explaining that while she was president of the UI faculty senate, she was a conservative in a more liberal environment.

"But she was effective, because she was so fair and so smart. She had a profound effect on the university long term," he said.

Besides teaching, Mrs. Watts' profound effect also included creating more opportunities for women on campus, especially in athletics. She was the chairwoman of the UI athletic board and was a member of the task force that brought women athletes into the Big Ten.

Former UI Athletic Director Ron Guenther first got to know her when he was a UI student, and Mrs. Watts was a tutor for athletes, including UI football legend Dick Butkus. Guenther said he recently reached out to Butkus to let him know Mrs. Watts wasn't doing well. Butkus told him that he was very fond of her and that she was very helpful to him as an undergraduate.

In the 1970s, Guenther said the UI started women's sports, and she was very helpful in that mission as part of the athletic board.

"She was a very big advocate of Title IX and women's sports," he said, explaining that she and her husband, the late Robert Watts, attended a lot of UI athletic events for men and women, and she was also a strong supporter of expanding the academic support system for athletes. "She was very direct and very supportive. ... She was a terrific liaison between the academic department and the athletic department."

Lou Liay, former UI Alumni Association director, knew her for more than 30 years.

"She was a big mover for women's sports. ... She was a very important part of the growth of women's sports at the UI," he said. "I always admired her for that. She was very strong-willed."

Ed Watts said his mom followed Illinois sports her whole life and attended UI basketball games when they were at Huff Hall.

He said she even took on a national role in regard to academic issues in athletics. Though she favored academic stringency, he said, she was not a fan of standardized tests in general and did not support linking those test scores to eligibility in athletics, a position shared by former Georgetown University men's basketball coach John Thompson.

They spoke together at various events on the issue, Ed Watts said, recalling the humor in seeing them together, because his mother was 5 feet 4 inches tall and Thompson's about 6 feet 10 inches.

"She led her life always on her own terms," he said.

Outside academic life, Ed Watts said, his mother was very devoted to her family, too, which included her husband and three sons. In the summers, they spent time in Michigan where their father's ancestral roots were, which gave his mother more opportunities to pursue her love of riding horses and sailing.

"She still has a horse," Ed Watts said, adding that she was still riding until a year ago and working on another Hemingway book. He said she was an animal lover, and they always had plenty of dogs, hamsters and all sorts of critters, and she enjoyed watching deer in the woods, too.

Liay said she loved animals, and she had a dog named True Love, a collie that lived to about 12 years old, passing away last year. He said the dog followed her everywhere.

"She would walk it every day," said Liay, whose wife often rode horses with Mrs. Watts. "She was a wonderful woman. We just always loved being with her."

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