Long-time Wellfleet resident William McFeely died on December 11 in Sleepy Hollow, NY. Bill and his wife Mary started coming to Wellfleet in the early 1980s, and became year-round residents in the 1990s. They loved the Outer Cape for its natural beauty, its artistic community, and its long history. An avid swimmer in both the ocean and ponds, Bill took his last swim last summer in Long Pond, surrounded by his grandchildren. He found a comfortable berth among the many historians in Wellfleet, but he and Mary were also avid art collectors, filling their walls with the works of local artists like their friends Peter Watts and Gloria Nardin. And they thrived in the wonderfully eclectic society that is the Outer Cape in the off season.
Bill was born in New York City, and grew up in Wyckoff, NJ, son of William C. and Marguerite S. McFeely. He went to Amherst College, and then, after eight years at First National City Bank, returned to school to get a PhD in American Studies at Yale. He arrived at Yale at the height of the Civil Rights movement. His fascination with history melded with his sense of social justice, and he used his talents as both a writer and a teacher to use the history of the period around the Civil War to encourage students and colleagues in the direction of racial justice. He was part of the group that created Yale’s African American Studies program. Among his students was Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who credits him with shaping his decision to become a scholar. He was later named Dean of Faculty at Mount Holyoke College, and taught in the history department there until 1986, when he moved to the University of Georgia in Athens. He is remembered fondly by students from all of the schools at which he taught.
Bill wrote numerous books, most of them biographies. His first, Yankee Stepfather, brought the Freedman’s Bureau to the attention of students of Reconstruction. His second, Grant: A Biography, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize. He also wrote biographies of Frederick Douglass and Thomas Eakins. Two later works, Sapelo’s People and Proximity to Death, allowed him to connect the past and present around issues of race.
He and Mary spent their last years at Kendal on Hudson in Sleepy Hollow, NY, where they reconnected with old friends and made many new ones. Bill, a teacher to the very end, taught a series of seminars to his neighbors at Kendal. At the time of his death he was working on a book about his father, who had served in the French Ambulance Corps during World War I.
His wife Mary Drake predeceased him. He is survived by a son, Drake (Karen), and daughters Jennifer (Jim Goodman), and Eliza (Jeff Fischer), as well as seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Equal Justice Institute, 122 Commerce Street, Montgomery, AL 36104 (https://eji.org)
the Fund for Nature, Mass Audubon, 208 South Great Road, Lincoln, MA, 01773 (https://www.massaudubon.org)
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