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Wilbert and Virginia McKeachie

Capping a Career Enriching the Psychology Department with a Legacy for the Future

“When they gave, they gave from their heart,” Linda Dicks observes about her parents, Wilbert and Virginia McKeachie. “They believe in the goodness of people.”

Bill and Ginny McKeachie have spent a lifetime dedicated to service—Bill to the University of Michigan Psychology Department and the art of college teaching, and Ginny to her family and community. When dedicating an East Hall auditorium in his name in 2015, the department called Bill “the most well-known researcher, teacher, and administrator in the field of teaching science, and one of the key architects of the University of Michigan Psychology Department,” and they credited him with helping Michigan psychology become “the best and most comprehensive department in the world.”

With the funds they have created—the Wilbert (Bill) J. McKeachie Discretionary Fund and the McKeachie College Learning and Teaching Research Fund—recently bolstered by over $100,000 in gifts from Ginny’s estate, the McKeachies will support psychology students and faculty for decades to come. The funds give the department the ability to use the gifts broadly, to meet unexpected needs and challenges, ensuring support as the field grows and changes in the future. “Dad always said there was never enough money in education, never enough money to accomplish what you really need to do to improve college teaching,” Linda explains. “He wanted to make sure there were funds there for the psychology department to use as needed.”

Bill and Ginny McKeachie were married for 74 years, until her death in 2017 at 96. They met as seniors at Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University) and married the day before Bill enlisted in the Navy, in the fall of 1942, to become a radar and communications officer on a destroyer in the Pacific.

Bill had planned to pursue a career as a minister, but while in the Navy, he wrote to Ginny that if he survived the war, he would go to graduate school in psychology, to have a better understanding of people. He entered the master’s program in clinical psychology in the fall of 1945, and remained at Michigan for the rest of his career, earning his masters in 1946 and his doctorate in 1949. The department offered him a teaching position and he began teaching introductory psychology as well as redesigning the undergraduate and graduate curriculums.

In his research, Bill focused on college teaching, and became internationally known for his work exploring student motivation, the interaction of personality variables and teaching methods, cognitive and learning analyses of classroom teaching, students’ perceptions of teachers and teaching, and evaluation of teaching effectiveness. He first published his book on college teaching, Teaching Tips: A Guidebook for the Beginning College Teacher in 1951; now in its 14th edition, it remains the preeminent guide for college teachers.

In 1961, Bill became chair of the psychology department, and during his tenure, it grew to over 100 faculty members, making it the largest department within the College of LSA and Rackham Graduate School. He also helped establish the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), one of the first centers of its kind in the country, and served as its director from 1975 to 1983.

In his service to the university, Bill worked on a variety of key committees, helped establish the Residential College, became chair of the faculty senate, and spent a year as president of the American Psychological Association. He built a reputation as a skilled mediator, especially between students and the administration during the height of the 1960s student movement. He also built a reputation as a skilled and passionate softball player (who flew home for games when he was working in Washington D.C. for the APA). Bill formally retired in 1992, but for years continued to teach and participated in the department’s daily games of MURDER, a card game invented by graduate students.

Having earned her undergraduate degree in library science, Ginny worked as a librarian at Mt. Clemens High School and EMU while Bill pursued his Ph.D. Once they began raising their two daughters, she stopped working and became active in community service. Ginny helped reestablish the library at her children’s school after it had been temporarily closed, and helped build the Dexter Library from a small house to a full-service institution. She kept the household running so Bill could devote his energies to his teaching and research, and she contributed to his work (including the idea to make the annual Improving University Teaching conference an international event). As her daughter Linda recalls, “She was more than just a wife and mother. She was everything in the household.”

Ginny and Bill were both dedicated to their church, where they volunteered extensively (and sang in the church choir for decades). They had an unconventional approach to religion for the time, but it has been true to them and has impacted the way they give to their community. “I think my parents did not believe in God,” their daughter Linda observes. “To them, God was love and love for mankind. They believed in the goodness of man.” In the introduction to The Teaching of Psychology: Essays in Honor of Wilbert J. McKeachie and Charles L. Brewer, Bill confirmed this: “I’m a humanist… I take literally the statement ‘god is love’—a value, rather than a supernatural human being.”

Not surprisingly, Bill and Ginny have been extremely generous to their community, and their philanthropy reflects the priorities in their lives: particularly education, church, and music. In addition to establishing the funds for the psychology department and giving to their church, they have supported the Peace Neighborhood Center, homeless shelter, Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center, the University Musical Society, the Encore Musical Theatre Company, and the Ann Arbor Civic Band. They also became associated with the Shaker community in Maine during summer workshops with the National Education Association’s training labs, and gave very generously to them.

“They did whatever they could do to help improve somebody’s life,” says Linda, summing up their generosity. “They were very modest—they never bragged—the only thing my father bragged about was his softball pitching.”