DIEDRICH WILLERS, JR.
IN PERSONAGE, who, by reason of his official relations at our state capitol has from time to time been an official resident of Albany, is the Hon, Diedrich Willers, Jr. Born on the 3d of November, 1833, at the town of Varick, Seneca county, N. Y., he passed his youthful days amidst the rural scenes of his birthplace under the careful guidance and instruction of excellent parents. His parentage was of German origin. His father, the Rev. Diedrich Willers, D. D., was a native of Bremen, Germany, and was educated at the public schools of that city. It was a period of stirring scenes in the annals of the old world. In the early part of this century the thunders of Napoleon’s cannon were shaking Europe, and large armies of different nationalities were engaged in deadly conflict. Inspired by the enthusiasm of those times Diedrich Willers, Sr., then a youth of sixteen, boldly enlisted in the army of Hanover in defense of his fatherland against the invasion of the French. Marching with the allied forces under Wellington and engaging in various conflicts with the enemy, he won his greatest military distinction in the memorable and decisive battle of Waterloo in 1815, where, for his bravery, he received a silver medal. His military career lasted about five years. On leaving the service he made up his mind to emigrate to America, and, accordingly, in 1819, he left the shores of ” the fatherland,” crossed the Atlantic, and safely landed at Baltimore, Md. In 1821, he completed in Pennsylvania his theological studies toward which his youthful attention had been turned before leaving his native land. Entering upon his high and sacred mission as a young man in a strange country, he became an earnest and powerful preacher of the gospel, officiating to German Reformed congregations in Seneca County, N. Y., during a period of over sixty years, commencing with April, 1821. He preached both in the German and English languages, and his pastoral labors were crowned with success. He died in 1883, at the advanced age of eighty- five years, leaving a fragrant memory in the hearts of all who knew him. He received the degree of D. D., from Franklin and Marshall College, at Lancaster, Pa.
Intending to have his son, the subject of our present sketch, follow him in the ministerial calling, the father paid special attention to his moral and intellectual training – carefully instructing him in the German language and in ancient classical literature. But the studies of the young man were considerably interrupted. To earn some money to carry on his education he was obliged to work upon a farm during the summer months, while he attended the district school in the winter. He also attended two terms at the Seneca Falls academy, and at the early age of sixteen, he began to teach school in his native place at a salary of twelve dollars a month, paying his own board out of this small sum. He continued to teach at intervals until he arrived at his majority. He was indeed a hard-working, industrious, self-made young man. At the age of twenty-two he entered a printing office with a view of learning the trade, and preparing himself for a journalistic career. He was a frequent contributor of political articles for the newspapers, but the close confinement of a compositor’s life in a local printing establishment did not agree with his health, not then very robust, and he was obliged to relinquish this kind of work. Looking around for something more congenial to his tastes, he now turned his attention to the study of the law, and after reading the principal text books on the subject he attended a course of instruction at the Albany Law School where after graduating he was admitted to the bar, but never entered upon the active duties of the profession. He seemed at last to have adopted politics as possessing still greater charms for him than the practice of the law. He early identified himself with the Democratic Party, for the success of which he has always since labored with great earnestness and determination of purpose. In the exciting presidential campaign of 1856, he supported James Buchanan, and in the following year he warmly advocated the election of Gideon J. Tucker for secretary of this state. After his election Mr. Tucker rewarded the services of the young and rising politician by giving him a clerkship in his office. It was the commencement of his political career – a career which has been so honorable to himself and so beneficial to the public service.
He entered upon his duties as clerk in the office of the secretary of state in January, 1858. And here his high qualifications for the work soon became widely known and greatly appreciated. In 1860 he was reappointed by the succeeding secretary of state, David R. Floyd Jones, and under the administration of Horatio Ballard, he was still retained, filling the position with peculiar fitness and fidelity till the close of 1863, when Horatio Seymour, governor of the state in 1864, appointed Mr. Willers his private secretary. This was during the most trying period of the civil war, and his duties were very onerous and complicated. But by his large knowledge of state affairs, the experience he had already gained in such work, his close and constant attention to official duty and his urbanity of manners, he soon gained the warmest friendship of the accomplished “Sage of Deerfield,” who commended his services in the highest terms. On the expiration of Gov. Seymour’s term of office, Mr. Willers returned to his home at Varick, and spent two or three years on his farm, invigorating his constitution by outdoor exercise for further hard, mental work in the state department. In the meantime (1865) he was chosen supervisor of his native town of Varick, which office he held during two terms. As chairman of the board, he rendered valuable assistance to his town and county, in the adjustment of accounts growing out of the war. The most difficult matters of this nature were always laid before Mr. Willers, who straightened them out with a masterly hand.
On the election of Homer A. Nelson as secretary of state in 1867, Mr. Willers was selected as his deputy, and returning to Albany he entered upon his new duties in January, 1868, occupying this position four years, During all this time Mr. Willers seems to have grown constantly in the estimation of the public, by his display of executive ability and a readiness to successfully grapple with and solve deep problems. He was soon to receive higher recognition at the hands of his party, and when Mr. Nelson retired from the political field in favor of his deputy, in the fall of 1871, Mr. Willers was nominated by acclamation for the office of secretary of state, but was defeated with the other candidates of his party, though at the same time, as an evidence of his popularity, he received the highest vote given to any candidate on the democratic ticket.
In 1872, Gov. Hoffman appointed him assistant paymaster-general with the rank of colonel. He was also detailed for duty in the executive chamber to examine bills passed by the legislature, and was thus employed until January, 1873, when he was chosen one of the secretaries of the constitutional commission then “in session at Albany. On the adjournment of this body the following March, he again visited his old and cherished homestead at Varick, spending the remainder of the year in the cultivation of his lands, and obtaining a much needed relief from the pressing duties of political life.
In the autumn of 1873, Mr. Willers was again nominated by the democratic convention held at Utica for the office of secretary of state, and was triumphantly elected by a majority of more than 10,000 over the republican candidate, Hon. Francis S. Thayer of Troy, one of the most popular republicans of the state. On the occasion of Mr. Willers’ second nomination at Utica, Gov. Seymour, who knew him so well, paid him one of the highest compliments ever bestowed upon a public servant. Rising in the convention he said: “Having known Mr. Willers for many years, having been closely associated with him in the discharge of duty, I can say that in my opinion there is no man in the state whom I could vote for, for this position, with more pleasure than I can vote for Diedrich Willers, Jr. He is not only an honorable, capable and honest man, but a faithful one. During all the time he was in that office, he was never known to be absent from his post of duty. For this office you want a man who will faithfully discharge its duties himself, and Mr. Willers is the man, of all others, to do this. It is no mere form, when we take up a man who has performed his duties at the lowest round of the ladder, and lift him to the highest. It means that there is true merit in the man. I have known Mr. Willers long and well, as I have already said. I knew him all through the trying time when I was governor, and of all the men surrounding me and my office, I found no man upon whom I could rely with more implicit confidence.”
With his many years of experience in the workings of this office, Secretary Willers found but little trouble in conducting its affairs most successfully during his term of two years, during which the state census of 1875 was taken under his direct supervision. In 1875 he declined a re-nomination, and in the following year made a tour in Europe, visiting many interesting and noted places, and especially his father’s native city of Bremen, and the battlefield of Waterloo. After an absence of three months, he returned home and again went to live on his farm. While thus living quietly among his old neighbors, he was elected to the legislature in the fall of 1877, serving for one year in the assembly. He took a great interest in the centennial celebration of General Sullivan’s Indian campaign at Waterloo in 1879, and compiled and edited a book descriptive of the same in 1880. In 1875 Mr. Willers received the degree of A. M. from Union college, and subsequently the same degree from Hamilton. The mother of Secretary Willers was a descendant of a Palatinate German family, which located at New Holland, Lancaster County, Pa., where she was born. She died in 1879, aged eighty-two years. Secretary Willers is unmarried, and attends the Reformed church, to which his father so long ministered.
Mr. Willers has performed a great deal of hard brain work in the service of the state. As a tactician, an analyst, as throwing light on dark and intricate questions, as bringing order out of confusion, his powers have been remarkable as well as praiseworthy. He has risen to an enviable position in the broad arena of politics, and the democratic party seem still to have a claim on his time and talents as it has found him a most practical, painstaking, upright, faithful and honorable official in all his connections with the public service of the Empire state.