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Dr. Willis Frederick Dunbar (1902-1970)

Father of Kalamazoo History

“The only way we can plan for the future is to understand our past”

–Dr. Willis F. Dunbar, 1961

The name Dr. Willis F. Dunbar is synonymous with the history of Kalamazoo, for it was the former Western Michigan University professor who crafted the most thorough and detailed chronicle of the city with his book Kalamazoo and How It Grew, first published in 1959, and then revised and reprinted a decade later. Despite the book’s blind spots and shortcomings (paucity of analysis, absence of footnotes and sources e.g.), the text remains as one of the most utilized secondary sources in understanding the political, economic and cultural development of the city from pre-white settlement through to the postmodern era. Dunbar would certainly be recognized for this one work if that were his only contribution to local historiography, but he was much more than just a scholar of Michigan history. His motivation to spread his knowledge of historical subjects to the wider Kalamazoo community led him to go beyond the classroom setting, and to adopt the role of public intellectual.

Early Years
Willis F. Dunbar, 1928 Kalamazoo College Yearbook

Born in Hartford, Michigan on 9 June 1902, Dunbar attended and graduated from the Hartford school system before attending Kalamazoo College in the early 1920’s. Upon graduating, he took a position teaching music and history at St. Joseph High School (1924-1928). After four years of teaching high school, Dunbar returned to Kalamazoo in 1929 to accept a teaching position at his alma mater, Kalamazoo College. While teaching, he began his graduate studies at the University of Michigan, earning his M.A. and Ph.D. in 1932. In 1939, he rose to the position of Dean of Men. According to a Kalamazoo Gazette article in 1960, the outbreak of World War II along with a “personality clash” saw him leave teaching for opportunities in radio and television.

Kalamazoo History Project

From 1941 to 1948, Dunbar, along with KPL director Jeanne Griffin, spearheaded a committee called the Kalamazoo History Project. Griffin and others in the educational and political spheres recognized the need to gather and archive primary and secondary data about the city for the purpose of fashioning an updated history of the community. Griffin diagnosed the problem from the perspective of a reference librarian working with students seeking resources that would assist in their understanding of both the past and the present. Samuel W. Durant’s History of Kalamazoo County, Michigan had been published in 1880, leaving many in the community to argue that an updated history of Kalamazoo would go a long way toward increasing “the comprehension of community living and the social, economic and governmental evolutions that have been good influences, to stimulate the emotion of “belonging” to this community and its public ventures and defeats and successes and so without preaching we would expect the book to be a help in creating better participating citizenship.” Much of the committee’s efforts laid the groundwork and provided the raison d’etre for Dunbar’s research.

Western Michigan University
Willis Dunbar, Nicholas Kik and Alexis Praus hold a time capsule to be buried inside of the Bronson Park Mound, 1954. Kalamazoo Valley Photograph File, 78.4849

In the fall of 1951, Dr. Dunbar returned to teaching, but this time for WMU. He would later hold the position of Chair of the History Department from 1960 to 1967. His seminal text Kalamazoo and How It Grew was published in 1959, the first book to be distributed by the WMU School of Graduate Studies’ imprint, Faculty Contribution Series. The book was lauded for its thoroughness of detail, winning a citation as the best book of the year from a committee of The American Society for State and Local History in October of 1960. Despite its age and arid prose, the fact-heavy book remains a useful starting place for those interested in understanding the individuals, groups and influences that shaped the city’s evolution.

Local Politics & ‘Varied Interests’

Not merely content with ruminating on the city’s past, Dunbar was active in Kalamazoo civic life, participating in local politics as a city commissioner from 1951-1957, serving as vice mayor from 1951-1953 and from 1955-1957. In addition to politics, Dunbar’s lifelong interest in music led him to chair the board of the Kalamazoo Symphony Society in 1960. Other state and local organizations that he was affiliated with over the years include the Torch and Kiwanis Clubs, the Michigan State Historical Commission, the Community Chest, the Michigan United Fund, and the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters. In 1948, he was awarded the Man-of-Year award from Temple B’nai B’rith, citing “Dunbar’s activities in behalf of better understanding between minority racial and religious groups. His continuing work in furthering this more complete accord in the basic factors of true Americanism.”

WKZO and Know Your City Series

In the early 1940’s, Dunbar entered the field of commercial radio, working as the Program Director, and later as the Director of Public Affairs for the John Fetzer-owned WKZO station. The Know Your City series was presented as a weekly broadcast from 22 August 1945 to 20 December 1946. “It’s purpose was to help the citizens of Kalamazoo become familiar with various programs, policies, and problems important to Kalamazoo residents.” Today, Michigan State University provides access to many of the interviews that Dunbar conducted with local individuals as part of the archived Kalamazoo Valley Museum WKZO Transcription Disc Collection. Dunbar saw his position at WKZO as an opportunity to impart his knowledge of history to a larger audience. Prior to an interview with guests Richard Staebler (President of the Chamber of Commerce) and Earl Weber (Manager of the Chamber of Commerce), Dunbar explained, “we bring you information concerning the government and civic organizations of Kalamazoo, about your city’s history, and its plans and problems in the days ahead.”

Dunbar died of heart complications at the Petoskey Hospital on 11 August 1970. WMU honored its late professor by naming a building for him several months later.

Authored Books

Centennial history of Kalamazoo College, 1933

Ideas make jobs in Kalamazoo, 1953

Michigan through the centuries, 1955

Kalamazoo and how it grew, 1959

The Michigan record in higher education, 1963

Michigan institutions of higher education in the Civil War, 1964

Michigan: A history of the Wolverine State, 1965

All aboard! A history of railroads in Michigan, 1966

Michigan historical markers, 1967

How it was in Hartford: An affectionate account of a Michigan small town in the early years of the twentieth century, 1968

Lewis Cass, 1970


Written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, January 2023



Who’s who in Michigan
Herbert S. Case, 1936
H 920 W 632

The Know Your City series over station WKZO
Willis Dunbar
H 977.418 D89 v.1-2


“B’nai B’rith names Dunbar Man-of-Year”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 November 1948, page 25, column 1

“Willis F. Dunbar has many, varied interests”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 22 May 1960, page 34, column 2

“New Kalamazoo history in production at WMU”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 October 1959, page 4, column 3

“Dunbar’s work rates as a top reference source”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 January 1960, page 24, column 2

“Dr. Willis Dunbar dies in Petoskey”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 August 1970, page A1, column 3

“Name new building for past teachers”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 December 1970, page A5, column 1

Local History Room Files

Name File: Dunbar, Willis F.

Subject File: Kalamazoo History Project (1941-1948)

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