Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Larry Willard was described by friends as a visionary, mentor, philanthropist, an education and literacy advocate, an agent for change and a tireless civic leader.
The former longtime president and chief executive officer of Wells Fargo New Mexico and West Texas, died Feb. 24 in Midland, Texas, where he most recently resided.
Willard was 78.
“Larry was committed to making New Mexico a better place to live as much as anybody I ever knew, and was one of the most positively impactful leaders New Mexico has had in recent memory,” said friend Steve Moise, the state’s investment officer. “He worked to improve our educational system and our business climate and wanted every child to have the opportunity to receive a quality education, get a good job and move up the economic ladder.”
As part of that goal, Willard endowed a number of libraries, including the Willard Reading Room at the University of New Mexico Zimmerman Library, and the Gerald and Betty Ford Library at the Bosque School.
“Every year the students vote on their favorite place to study on campus, and Zimmerman Library always comes out No. 1 because of its wide variety of spaces, and one of the most popular is the Willard Reading Room,” said Mark Emmons, interim dean for the College of University Libraries and Learning Sciences.
Willard also endowed the Willard Lecture Series, whose speakers regularly fill the Willard Reading Room and the hallway beyond.
Jessie Barrie, head of the Bosque School, said Willard was one of the school’s earliest supporters, donating money for student financial aid as well as providing funds for the school’s library, the Wells Fargo Conference Room and the Willard Room, a community learning and study space.
In 1997, he received the Governor’s Distinguished Public Service Award.
Willard was a former president of the UNM Board of Regents and chaired Albuquerque Economic Development and the Kirtland Partnership Committee. He also served on the boards of the Downtown Action Committee, Kirtland AFB Retention Task Force, Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce; Economic Forum of Albuquerque, Albuquerque Community Foundation; United Way of Central New Mexico, New Mexico Educational Assistance Foundation, Boy Scouts, Governor’s Business Advisory Council, New Mexico Bankers Association, UNM Hospital Board of Trustees, UNM’s Anderson School of Management, Albuquerque Academy and Special Olympics New Mexico.
Willard grew up in Roswell. His father, Edgar Willard, was a public schools administrator and his mother, Billie Willard, was a librarian. “He always attributed his success to his parents and he quoted them as saying that they removed the word ‘can’t’ from the dictionary,” Moise said.
After graduating from Roswell High School in 1960, Willard earned a degree in accounting and finance from Eastern New Mexico University and then completed graduate school programs in banking and commercial lending at the University of Colorado and the University of Oklahoma.
Current UNM Board of Regents President Doug Brown called Willard “the essence of the best of community bankers,” who supported community projects with personal and corporate financial donations, and served as an example of “an outstanding citizen.”
Beyond Willard’s personal and corporate financial support, Dr. Cheryl Willman, director and CEO of UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center, said Willard was “pivotal for me in thinking about how to structure the cancer center from a successful business model, and how to integrate it with our community,” she said.
Willard helped her form and chaired the center’s first community advisory board, and he convinced her to speak publicly about “why building a nationally recognized cancer center was not only good for patient care and meeting the needs of cancer patients in New Mexico, but also why it was important for economic and business development in terms of driving cancer research.”
In the last five years, research conducted at the cancer center has resulted in 173 patents and 10 biotech company start-ups.
“Larry saw that vision years ago,” Willman said.
Michelle Coons, New Mexico regional president for Washington Federal Bank, called Willard “a great change agent who stepped forward when he saw that something needed to be done in the community, and then rallied other community leaders to get involved.”
Coons met Willard when she was working as a management trainee at Wells Fargo.
“Larry would always send every one of his employees a personal card on their birthdays and on the anniversary of their employment, and I could see how much they appreciated that recognition,” she said.
Coons has since adopted that gesture with her employees.
Former longtime president of Albuquerque Economic Development, Gary Tonjes, said Willard was “an inspiring leader, passionate philanthropist and a tireless mentor.”
In many ways, he said, Willard was “the voice for those who wanted a job or a career and a greater life.”
Willard, he said, “brought substantial resources and personal energy to a cause,” and then used his “charm, humor and persuasive abilities” to bring others along.
“He was a force of nature,” Tonjes said.
A private family service will be held in Midland on Sunday and a public celebration of his life will be held in Albuquerque at a date to be announced.