Willard R. Espy

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Willard R. Espy
Willard R. Espy (1977).jpg
Born Willard Richardson Espy
(1910-12-11)December 11, 1910
Olympia, Washington, U.S.
Died February 20, 1999(1999-02-20) (aged 88)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Resting place Oysterville Cemetery, Oysterville, Washington, U.S.
46°32′52″N 124°02′01″W / 46.54787°N 124.03373°W / 46.54787; -124.03373
  • Writer
  • poet
  • philologist
Alma mater University of Redlands
Notable works An Almanac of Words at Play
Oysterville: Roads to Grandpa's Village
Spouse Hilda Cole (m. 1940)
Louise Manheim (m. 1962; his death 1999)

Willard Richardson Espy (December 11, 1910 – February 20, 1999) was an American editor, philologist, writer, poet, and local historian. Raised in the seaside village of Oysterville, Washington, Espy later studied at the University of Redlands in California before becoming an editor in New York City, as well as a contributor to Reader's Digest, The New Yorker, Punch, and other publications.

In the 1960s, he began publishing books on philology as well collections of poetry collections, and became the best-known collector of and commentator on word play of his time.[1] In 1977, he published the national bestseller Oysterville: Roads to Grandpa's Village, a semi-autobiographical novel about his familial heritage in the Oysterville community. Espy died at New York Hospital in Manhattan in 1999, and was interred at Oysterville Cemetery.

Early life[edit]

Espy was born in Olympia, Washington in 1910, the sixth of seven children, to Harry Albert Espy (1876–1959) and Helen Medora Espy (née Richardson; 1878–1954).[2] His father, a one-time Washington state senator, was of Scots-Irish descent.[3] His mother was from San Francisco, the daughter of a local preacher.[4]

Espy's eldest sister, Medora, a student at the Portland Academy in Portland, Oregon, died at age seventeen when Espy was six years old after sustaining head injuries while ice skating.[5] His older brother, Harry Albert, also died of an undiagnosed stomach ailment in Portland at age three in 1905, prior to Espy's birth.[6] Espy also had an older sister, Suzita (1903–1932); older sister Mona (1904–1970); older brother Edwin (1908–1993); and younger brother Dale (1911–2009).[7]

He and his siblings were raised in the coastal village of Oysterville, Washington, which had been founded in 1854 by his grandfather, R. H. Espy, a settler who arrived in Oregon Territory via The Oregon Trail.[8] Espy graduated from the University of Redlands in 1930 with a B.A. after which he spent a year abroad, enrolling at the Sorbonne in Paris, planning to study philosophy.[9][10] He returned to the United States in 1932, working as a newspaper editor in California, later moving to New York City where he was eventually hired by Reader's Digest in 1941. Espy spent next sixteen years working for Reader's Digest in various positions, including as promotion director.[10]


Espy's writing career took off in the late 1960s; he eventually authored fifteen books on language, and his poetry and articles regularly appeared in Punch, Reader's Digest, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, and Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics.[9][11] Espy earned praise from contemporary critics such as Louis Untermeyer and John Chancellor.[12] Summarizing Espy's writing, critic Alistair Cooke wrote:

To Willard Espy the English language is what a football is to Joe Namath, a golf ball to Arnold Palmer, the male of the species to Zsa Zsa Gabor: a wonderful object to manipulate, to flog, to coax and have a barrel of fun with.[12]

Later in life, Espy divided his time between Manhattan and his home in Oysterville, and wrote nationally-bestselling books on local history, including Oysterville: Roads to Grandpa's Village (1977) and Skulduggery on Shoalwater Bay (1998).[9] Two of his books on wordplay, The Game of Words and An Almanac of Words at Play, were honored at the Governor's Writers Day Awards (now the Washington State Book Awards), [13] and the latter was a national bestseller.[14] He was also a contributing writer for The New Yorker[15] and other publications.


Espy's grave at Oysterville Cemetery

Espy died aged 88 at New York Hospital in Manhattan on February 20, 1999.[10][16] He is interred in a family plot in Oysterville Cemetery.[17] His second wife Louise, a native of New York, died in November 2011, and was interred beside him.[17]


The Espy Foundation was established in 1998; the non-profit foundation, based out of Espy's home in Oysterville, Washington, served as a retreat space for artists and writers in the Pacific Northwest.[18] In December 2010, the foundation officially closed.[18]

Espy's light verse has been compared to that of Lewis Carroll, W. S. Gilbert, Ogden Nash and Cole Porter.[10]



  1. ^ Nilsen, Alleen; Nilsen, Don (November 6, 2008). "Literature and humor". In Raskin, Victor. The Primer of Humor Research. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 243–280. ISBN 978-3-11-018616-1. 
  2. ^ Espy 1992, p. 258.
  3. ^ Espy 1992, p. 37.
  4. ^ Espy 1992, pp. 255–9.
  5. ^ Espy 1992, p. 270.
  6. ^ Espy 1992, pp. 269–70.
  7. ^ Espy, 1992 & p-270.
  8. ^ Espy 1992, pp. 117–120.
  9. ^ a b c Willard R. Espy (1999). The Best of An Almanac of Words at Play. Merriam-Webster. 
  10. ^ a b c d Thomas, Robert McG., Jr. (February 25, 1999). "Willard Espy, Who Delighted in Wordplay, Is Dead at 88". The New York Times. 
  11. ^ Eckler, A. Ross (2010). "Look back!". Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. 43 (3): 228–229. 
  12. ^ a b The New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art. 2. Arno Press. 1976. p. 94. 
  13. ^ "Governor's Writers Day Awards at the Washington State Library, 1966–2000". WA State Library. Washington Secretary of State. Retrieved November 23, 2014. 
  14. ^ "The Wonderful World of Words". New York Magazine: 159. November 14, 1983. ISSN 0028-7369. 
  15. ^ Espy, Willard R. (1986) "All End-Letters Different in a Poem," The New Yorker (Word Ways): Vol. 19 : Iss. 3 , Article 3.
  16. ^ "Willard Espy Obituary". National Public Radio. Retrieved February 27, 2018. 
  17. ^ a b "Live long and…". Sydney of Oysterville. June 10, 2012. Archived from the original on February 27, 2018. Retrieved February 25, 2018. 
  18. ^ a b Gable, Cate (December 14, 2010). "End of an Era for the Espy Foundation". Chinook Observer. Retrieved February 27, 2018. 

Works cited[edit]

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