In Memoriam: William Hitchcock MacLeish


The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death of retiree William Hitchcock MacLeish on May 13 of natural causes at his home in Charlemont, Mass.  He was surrounded by his immediate family at the time of his passing and was visited by many close friends and family members in the days leading up to his death. He was 86.

Bill was a man of many talents, many places, and many names. His parents, the poet Archibald MacLeish and the singer Ada Hitchcock MacLeish, christened him Peter, but most people knew him as Bill. His father referred to him as “Mister Stanley” and many young family members called him “Uncle Willy.” He played banjo, guitar, piano, recorder, and was celebrated as a first-rate bagpiper. He spoke French, Spanish, Quechua, Aymara, and also Mark Twain.

The youngest son of a prominent poet, playwright, and statesman, Bill grew up amongst the cognoscenti and the hired help in Georgetown, Cambridge, and Buenos Aires. Felix Frankfurter encouraged his recorder playing and Carl Sandburg told him to give up his dreams of being a folk singer. He and his first wife Margaret “Peg” (Moll) MacLeish, who survives him, lived in Peru for two years, where he reported on life in the Andes as a fellow for the Institute of Current World Affairs. He worked for Henry Luce at Fortune and David Rockefeller at the Center for InterAmerican Relations and Kingman Brewster at Yale University.

Bill began his career at WHOI in 1972 as the editor for Oceanus Magazine.  In 1982, he became contributing editor for Oceanus Magazine.  He retired from WHOI in 1993.

But while many things changed over the course of his life, the hills of Franklin County, Mass., were a permanent passion. As a boy, he spent summers in Conway, learning to snag wide-mouth bass from the shadows of the Upper Pond and to flush grouse from the forest above the Harris’s cow pasture. When, at midlife, he remade himself into a writer, he and his second wife, the poet Elizabeth Libbey, bought an old farm in Charlemont, which they named “Weird Hall.” He wrote four books in the study above the mudroom, including “The Day Before America: Changing the Nature of the Continent” and a memoir about his relationship with the author of “Ars Poetica” and JB. He entertained friends and family with bagpipes and bocce under the apple blossoms, and by reading the tales of the West Highlands aloud in front of the fireplace.

In his last chapter, Bill put down the pen and the bourbon and picked up his paces at King’s Gym in Greenfield. As his mind wandered, his torso gained in strength. Unable to organize extended research, he discovered a deeper capacity for love, particularly for his wife, his family, and all four-legged creatures. Up until the end, he could still recite Tennyson and sing the ballads of John Jacob Nyles. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Libbey of Charlemont, Mass; his daughters, Meg Mott and her wife, Alison of Putney, VT; Morellen MacLeish and her husband, John Voci of Easthampton, Mass.; his brother-in-law William Boggs of Missoula, MT, and Deirdre Swanson of Stevensville, MT; his grandchildren, Lucia Turino of Putney, VT, Jacob Turino of Berkeley, CA, and Ana Voci of Brooklyn, NY.

There will be a private service. Arrangements are under the direction of Walker Funeral Home, Greenfield, Mass. In lieu of flowers, please send donations in memory of Bill to the Deerfield River Watershed Association, 15 Bank Row, Suite A, Greenfield, Mass., 01301 or email

Information for this obituary was taken from the Missoulian.




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