Remembering Dr. William “Billy” Selden Hamilton

Beloved professor leaves behind a lasting legacy of friendship and generosity


Dr. Hamilton sits in front of Greene Hall overlooking Manchester Plaza while smoking his pipe on an autumn day in 2013. Hamilton passed away from leukemia this past Saturday at the age of 79.

Connor McNeely and Cap McLiney

Dr. William “Billy” Selden Hamilton, a professor of Slavic languages and linguistics at Wake Forest University, passed away on Oct. 9 after a years-long battle with leukemia.

A profoundly intelligent and accomplished man, Hamilton brought his innate love of language to Wake Forest’s campus — he was known for speaking Dutch, French, Croatian, Old English, Czech, Polish, Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian and Gaelic in addition to Russian. 

His teaching was recognized with an award at SUNY Buffalo, an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellowship and the 2021 Jon Reinhardt Award for Distinguished Teaching. His book, “Introduction to Russian Phonology and Word Structure”, is still widely read across the country in Russian language courses.

And yet, despite all these remarkable achievements, Billy Hamilton was much more than a distinguished academic. One is bound to find both great friends and great professors throughout their time in college. To many, Professor Billy Hamilton was both.

I (Cap McLiney) remember the first time I saw him walk into the classroom. Hamilton’s eyes twinkled behind a pair of round glasses, his checked button-down was tucked in and a ball cap with two stitched turtles rested on his head.  

Upon sitting down in front of the classroom of silent, wide-eyed freshmen, Hamilton patted the instrument case on the table to his left. 

He scanned the room, and asked, “So, does anyone know anything about banjos?” 

Since Fall 2019, Hamilton and I had remained in close contact as he helped me to learn the banjo. We passed the time with back-porch visits at his house, sitting on the lawn in front of Greene Hall, texting, calling, emailing and using FaceTime. Hamilton ultimately insisted I call him Billy.

It’s true that I learned a whole lot about banjo from Billy, and will never let go of his tips. However, it was his lived, daily example of exceptional kindness that I will never forget. The  Wake Forest community will not, either. 

Senior Josie Asbacher was one of Hamilton’s students. As such, she is a member of one of the tight-knit communities he fostered in his language courses. 

“He’s the reason that I’m minoring in Russian. I just decided on a whim to take Russian for my language requirement. I almost dropped it [about] five times freshman year,” Ansbacher said. “It was one class that I had every day — with the same five people and Hamilton. But seeing his passion for Russian every day is why I’ve stuck with it for four years.”

The true nature of Hamilton’s life and work at Wake Forest was remembered best by his colleagues. Dr. Alyssa Howards, chair of the German and Russian department, perfectly encapsulates the openhandedness of his character.

“Billy was the best of what Wake Forest aspires to be, a true intellectual and Renaissance man who gave selflessly,” Howards said. “Needed a quiet place to take a make-up test? Billy would offer his office up to you. Hungry? He’d grab you an extra sandwich on his walk over to Subway. If it was a hot summer day and you were stuck here for summer school and homesick? He’d tell you to come over to swim in his pool and play with his dogs. Billy gave of himself completely, and I smile thinking how many former students were transformed by his generosity.”

No matter what, Hamilton always brought out two chairs to sit in front of Green Hall: one for him and one for anyone else with a heartbeat. Through this simple act, he created an approachable, home-like environment. 

Whether you knew him or not, Hamilton’s presence on campus was comforting in that he seemed like family to anyone who might need to take a seat or was simply passing by. The campus was like his home, the students like his grandkids and Greene lawn, his porch. 

Hamilton is remembered in an obituary. Instead of a traditional funeral, Hamilton’s family plans to have a musical celebration in the spring or summer of 2022.