Teachers Change Lives.

Mary R. Willard was Robert H. Jackson’s high school English teacher and mentor. Mary had a dedicated and profound faith in the abilities of Robert Jackson, and with that faith she encouraged and inspired him.

Jackson credits Mary with instilling in him the passion for knowledge, and in his own words, “inspiration to good reading, or to writing, and to living on a higher plane of culture, came from this earnest and modest woman.” Mary was a significant mentor in the life of Jackson, and in the lives of many of Jamestown, NY students in the early years of the 20th century. Jackson believed that, “It is in large degree due to her leadership and teaching that a standard of public speaking, journalism and writing prevails in this city above that usual to one of our size.”

The Robert H. Jackson Center is proud to display, Say, I Taught Thee: The Life of Mary R. Willard.

Say, I taught Thee brings together letters, photographers, and memorabilia honoring the life of Mary R. Willard, and drawing us closer to a young Robert Jackson. Jackson saw in Mary a kindred spirit, and teacher. His love of literature, and careful craftsmanship of words was due in part to her guidance.

Jamestown High School, 1900
Credit: Jamestown Public Schools Records Center and Archives

Mary Rosina Willard was born in Jamestown, NY in 1856 to Lucius Willard and Rachel Doty Jones.

Mary Willard attended the local schools, and graduated from the Jamestown Union School and Collegiate Institute in 1875. She was a pupil in the English Academic Course. Mary taught in the public schools from 1875 to 1916. From 1875 till 1885 she taught in the elementary grades. In 1885 she became a member of the High School faculty, on which she served until her retirement 31 years later. She taught history, literature, and English, and was the Preceptress of the English and English History department for many years.

After her retirement in 1916, Mary continued to live with her sister Vesta, who was also a schoolteacher. They lived on the corner of 6th and Winsor Street in Jamestown, which they called “Bohemia”, and in the mid 1920’s moved to Long Beach, California. Mary Willard died in California in 1931. She is buried in Lakeview Cemetery. Vesta died in California in 1935, and is buried next to Mary.

The high esteem in which the students of the High School held Mary was evidenced when, upon her retirement in 1916, the graduating class of that year established the Mary R. Willard Scholarship fund. The award was given annually for many years. Mary Willard’s farewell admonition at the final class banquet is advice that we all need to embrace.

“Avoid mistaking tinsel for solid gold!”

Miss Willard Honored, Jamestown Evening Journal, June 27, 1916
Credit: Jamestown Public Schools Records Center and Archives

“When I had graduated from the Frewsburg high school (1909), I went to Jamestown high school for one year. I got some subjects in the high school in Jamestown that I could not get in Frewsburg. A trolley line had been built between Jamestown and Frewsburg so that it was very easy to go in each day. At Jamestown I came under the influence of some teachers that had a very decisive influence on my life.

I came under the influence of Mary R. Willard who taught English. I was in her English class and her English history class. One day she asked about some question quite remote from the textbook treatment of the subject. No one else could answer, but I answered it. It happened to be something I had read. She laid her book down and said, “Why, Bob Jackson, where did you learn that?”

– The Reminiscences of Robert H. Jackson, Columbia University Oral History Project, 1952-1953, pgs 62-63

Jamestown High School Study Hall, 1900
Credit: Jamestown Public School Records Center and Archives
Vesta Willard, 1875
Credit: Fenton History Center

The exhibit includes a number of letters written between Mary & Vesta Willard, and Robert & Irene Jackson. Below is the text of a letter that Mary sent to Robert on his 25th birthday.


To Robert H. Jackson

on this Twenty Fifth Birthday

February 13, 1917

Robert dear:

For the first time since it has been my happy privilege to write you a birthday greeting, I seem to be addressing one who is “grown-up.”

So I will forego the perhaps too oft-repeated recital of the many and rich “assets” with which life has endowed you; I will forbear to detail the “liabilities” which this same capricious but uncompromising life will compel you more and more, in common with your fellow mortals to assume; I will spare you the obvious admonitions in which I have been accustomed to indulge as is the futile habit of three score in it’s fond anxiety for the well being and success of five and twenty.

But tho’ relegating all these things to the shelf, where your reminiscent finger will soon begin to detect a thin film of dust-gathering over your boyhood memories, my hearts’ chief and constant joy remains– that of wishing for the beloved child of my adoption all the choicest treasures that Heaven can bestow.

Here words fail me, for in spite of my brave beginning you must ever be just my “little Bob.”

Same as ever,


– Willard, Mary R. To Robert H. Jackson On This Twenty Fifth Birthday. Letter. From Library of Congress, The Robert Houghout Jackson Papers, 1816-1983.http://lccn.loc.gov/mm83061408 (Accessed 2005, Revised 2010).

This relationship, one between teacher and student, developed into a deep friendship that lasted the rest of Mary R. Willard’s life, and her influence on Jackson was ever present. When Robert Jackson took the podium at Nuremberg to give his closing statement in 1946, he quoted Shakespeare’s Richard III:

It is against such a background that these defendants now ask this Tribunal to say that they are not guilty of planning, executing, or conspiring to commit this long list of crimes and wrongs. They stand before the record of this trial as bloodstained Gloucester stood by the body of his slain King. He begged of the widow, as they beg of you: “Say I slew them not.” And the Queen replied, “Then say they were not slain. But dead they are…”

Mary R. Willard was present in that courtroom, and the hours she spent with Jackson, studying and reciting Shakespeare, and encouraging and engaging him, had a profound impact on his character…. a character that would carry him far and influence our Nation and the world.