ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Anne Willis recently uncovered a musty scrapbook that sheds light on her uncle's short, remarkable life.
A hero lost, not forgotten
An 88-year-old tale of courage, tragedy, and grateful beneficence that's never been publicly told.
By Frank Fitzpatrick / Staff Writer, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com
Sunday, March. 27, 2016

Sometime soon, when he's fully recovered from heart surgery, 97-year-old Richard MacSherry will donate $1 million to Orlando's Florida Hospital.

Gratitude is nothing new for MacSherry, a Main Line native who has lived much of his life alongside a river that was nearly his grave.

A great-grandson of the railroad magnate who founded Lehigh University, he has donated millions to hospitals, libraries, and nature preserves in Florida and near his Upstate New York home.

"To me," he said recently at his lakeside condominium in Mount Dora, Fla., "I really haven't paid back very much at all."

YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Richard MacSherry has donated millions to hospitals, libraries and nature preserves in Florida and near his upstate New York home. "To me, I really haven't paid back very much at all," he said.

He owes that debt to a long-forgotten ghost, one whose heroic story, thanks to MacSherry, continues to resonate. It's a story so rich in virtue, history, and fate — both unimaginably cruel and providential — that it seems drawn from the Greek mythology its doomed hero eagerly consumed as a child.

"Francis Willis," MacSherry said, "deserves as much credit as we can give him."

Eighty-eight years ago, Willis drowned in the St. Lawrence River. A popular wrestler and scholar at Lehigh, his death was made more tragic by its timing.

Francis Willis was a popular wrestler and scholar at Lehigh.

It came on his 21st birthday, June 16, 1928, four days after he had graduated as Lehigh's No.1 civil-engineering student, six days after he had gotten engaged to a descendant of Martha Washington, 14 days after he had accepted a job with a powerful Philadelphia company.

He died saving the life of 9-year-old Dick MacSherry.

Filled with elements reminiscent of the film It's a Wonderful Life, the fateful intersection of these two sons of privilege features a cast that includes scions of Pennsylvania industrialists, New Jersey politicians, and prominent Revolutionary War-era families.

Now, recovering from double heart-valve surgery, which taxes much-younger men, MacSherry has lifted his Main Line reserve and agreed to tell the story publicly.

"He's mentioned it only occasionally," said son Richard H. MacSherry. "It's not something he's proud of."

“Suddenly high in the western sky appeared one rift in the musky clouds.”
Charles Ethelbert Willis

Recently, Willis' niece in Williamsburg, Va., uncovered a trove of information that sheds light on his short but remarkable life. Inside a musty scrapbook that for decades sat unread and unnoticed by Anne Willis is a biography of the victim composed by his father.

Charles Ethelbert Willis' narrative concludes with a cinematic moment from the funeral:

"Suddenly high in the western sky appeared one rift in the musky clouds. Through the cleft, a solid beam of sunlight shot through, a great shaft of glory, and the end of the shaft rested for a moment on the flag-draped casket. At this very instant, a bird in a tree overhead sang blithely."

The Willises were an old New Jersey family, one that earned a fortune in iron and cherished its Sons of the American Revolution membership.

Born in 1907, the youngest of three sons of a mining engineer and his socially prominent Virginia wife, Francis Macleod Willis was as precocious as he was prosperous.

Willis drowned on his 21st birthday, June 16, 1928, four days after he'd graduated as Lehigh's No. 1 civil-engineering student.

The founder of Richmond's elite McGuire's University School called Willis, Class of 1924, "the most brilliant student I have ever had."

He earned a scholarship to Lehigh, the school of his father and his older brother, Charles. A third brother, John, then a young naval officer, would later earn a French Legion of Honor medal for commanding an attack transport, the Henrico, on D-Day.

A civil-engineering major, Willis was named Lehigh's outstanding freshman wrestler in 1925 and was active in ROTC, student government, and numerous social and academic organizations.

Willis was a member of the Sigma Pi fraternity. His 1928 yearbook describes him as having a "genial smile, ready wit and sincerity of purpose."

In the Sigma Phi fraternity, he made two well-connected friends: Ryan Fort, son of a New Jersey congressman and grandson of a Garden State governor; and Harry Wilbur, like MacSherry a great-grandson of Lehigh's founder, Asa Packer.

The 1928 yearbook describes him as having a "genial smile, ready wit and sincerity of purpose."

On June 10, he got engaged to Henrietta Starr, the daughter of a Pottsville mining engineer whose family's roots could be traced to George Washington's wife.

Willis was engaged to Henrietta Starr, the daughter of a Pottsville mining engineer whose family's roots could be traced to George Washington's wife.
ZOOM: A letter written from Francis Willis to his mother two days before his death. | Click here to read the full letter.

At graduation June 12, Willis carried Lehigh's flag at the head of the commencement procession. Hired two weeks earlier by Philadelphia's Reading Co., he was set to start his duties on July 16 for $130 a month.

Immediately after graduation, he and Wilbur left for the Thousand Islands, near the New York-Canada border, where Wilbur's family owned considerable property.

"I am very much pleased with the islands," Willis wrote his mother. "It is so so quiet here that I know I shall sleep beautifully."

His friend's father, Army Col. Harry Packer Wilbur, had recently built a new home on Reveille Island, and on June 16 his son and Willis planned to move furniture there from the family's Sport Island mansion.

MacSherry, a cousin of Wilbur, was born and lived for a time on Old Stone Farm, the Radnor estate of his grandparents, Rollin and Nan Wilbur. He summered at the Thousand Islands until he was 18.

"It was beautiful," MacSherry said. "I loved it."

Saturday, June 16, he recalled, was "a very hot day." He and an older female cousin helped load furniture onto a barge tied to the Wilburs' 27-foot motorboat, the Wela Ka Hao, Hawaiian for "Strike while the iron is hot."

YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
MacSherry was a cousin of Willis' friend Wilbur. He summered at the Thousand Islands until he was 18.
Immediately after graduation from Lehigh, Willis (left) and his friend Harry Wilbur left for the Thousand Islands.

MacSherry and Willis sat on the barge. Near Brockport, Ontario, a half-mile from Reveille Island, the barge line was unhitched.

"We weren't going very fast, maybe four to five miles an hour," MacSherry remembered. "I stuck an oar in the river to slow us down. Well, the water pressure was so strong, it pulled me in. I went under the barge, sputtering and scared to death. If I was a swimmer, I wasn't much of one."

The St. Lawrence was between 100 and 300 feet deep there, and bitterly cold. As the frightened boy thrashed in the water, a tourist boat passed.

"I can remember very clearly looking up to that boat," he said. "Nobody attempted to do anything, but, of course, they didn't know what was going on. I can still see their faces. All these years later, I can still see them."

At that instant, a fully clothed Willis dived in. He reached the boy, who had plunged below the surface. Managing to place MacSherry on his shoulders, Willis moved him toward the boat.

The two sank below the water again and Wilbur dived in after them. With all three submerged, Willis handed MacSherry to his friend, who got the now-unconscious boy to the boat.

"The boy was revived after some time and with great difficulty," Willis' father wrote. "[Harry] again dove for Francis, but the latter had by this time reached a depth beyond human rescue."

Thousand

Islands

ONTARIO

Ontario

Canada

Rockport

N.Y.

Willis rescued

MacSherry

Lehigh University

Pa.

Philadelphia

Willis’ body was found

half a mile down from

the rescue site.

Reveille Island

Thousand Islands

Thousand

Islands

Ontario

N.Y.

Lehigh University

Pa.

Philadelphia

Willis’ body was found half a mile down

from the rescue site.

ONTARIO

Willis rescued

MacSherry

Canada

Reveille Island

Thousand Islands

Photo from Google Earth Pro
OLIVIA HALL / Philly.com

By nightfall, a telegram had reached Willis' parents.

The search continued for 12 days. Finally, around 6 a.m. June 28, Fort and Wilbur discovered their friend's bloated body, floating down river, a half-mile below the rescue site.

Two days later Willis was buried after a service at Parsippany (N.J.) Presbyterian Church.

"We thought we were following the orbit of a splendid star," his father wrote. "Alas, we saw a brilliant meteor flash across the sky and then disappear."

Perhaps because he was 9 and had come so close to death himself, MacSherry wasn't told about the gruesome discovery. "I found out much later," he said.

He and his mother would move from St. Davids to Toronto, then Washington. After graduating from Sidwell Friends School, he enrolled at Lehigh, but left in 1942 after one year to enlist in the Navy. A Seabee, he served in the Pacific until World War II's end.

YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
"Francis Willis was a hero," MacSherry said. "But it wasn't until years later that I really thought I ought to do something."

Settling in the Thousand Islands region, MacSherry established a successful trucking company, Seaway Motor Express, and built a riverside home in Alexandria Bay, N.Y., near where Willis drowned.

YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
MacSherry put a plaque in Lehigh's chapel honoring Willis.

It wasn't until he sold the business and retired in the 1980s that he began to reflect on Willis' courageous act. MacSherry had seldom recounted the story of his rescue.

"Francis Willis was a hero," MacSherry said. "But it wasn't until years later that I really thought I ought to do something. So I started a scholarship program at Lehigh."

The Francis MacLeod Willis '28 Memorial Fund was established in 1981 and its proceeds are used for various purposes, including scholarships.

Since then, MacSherry's charitable zeal has intensified, timing that his daughter believes is no coincidence.

"He won't talk about it," said Mary MacSherry MacWade. "But I think that because of it, he really has become quite a philanthropist."

“I think that because of it, he really has become quite a philanthropist.”
Mary MacSherry MacWade

Willis' father informed his son's friends of the tragedy. He returned the boy's ROTC uniform to the Army, let the Reading Co. know his son would not be showing up, and went to work on the scrapbook.

Among its many documents are a 1930 letter notifying him of the Carnegie Hero Fund's decision to honor his son's heroism and a photo of a bronze memorial plaque, crafted at Philadelphia's D'Ascenzo Studio and installed later that year in Lehigh's chapel.

The pentagonal memorial hangs in the chapel to this day.

Soon after the tragedy, Willis' fiancee returned his letters to his mother. This man of science revealed himself as a romantic in them. In one, he wrote of a tearful farewell to fraternity brothers he would "be proud and happy to die for."

Willis did give his life for another, of course, and in a letter to his fiancee just weeks before, he posed a question that his death — "that poignant agony," as Harry P. Wilbur termed it — would leave unanswered forever:

"I sometimes wonder why," Willis wrote, "why anything is, or should be, or was."

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, @philafitz

YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
MacSherry is recovering from double heart-valve surgery, which taxes much-younger men. His charitable zeal intensified after he started a scholarship in memory of Willis. His daughter believes it is no coincidence.