George S. Wills, founder of PR firm Wills & Associates, ‘people person’ and accomplished watercolorist, dies

George S. Wills, the irrepressibly gregarious founder, chairman and CEO of Wills & Associates, a public relations firm, who was a collector of friends and an accomplished watercolorist, died Feb. 12 in his sleep at the Blakehurst Retirement Community in Towson. The former Ruxton and Rodgers Forge resident was 84.

“A character. George Wills was a character and that’s the right term to describe him,” former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said. “When I think of George, I think of him being part of the Helen Bentley crew, our shared love of Winston Churchill, and his annual Christmas cards that we looked forward to.


“He was well-liked by everyone and it was impossible to dislike him because of his personality. He was such a man about town that he might as well have been in politics.”

E. Daniel “Dan” Rankin was a close friend for more than 60 years. “George was fun and laughed easily,” Mr. Rankin said. “He was always very enjoyable, funny, and good company.”


George Stockton Wills, son of Richard N. Wills, a former McDonogh schoolteacher and farm manager, and his wife, Margaret von Marees, a homemaker, was born in Baltimore and raised on the campus of the McDonogh School, from which he graduated in 1954.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1958 from Pennsylvania State University. While an undergraduate, he forged a friendship with Milton S. Eisenhower, the president of the university at the time.

He liked recounting the story of being a homesick freshman at Penn State, sitting alone in church on Sunday when Dr. Eisenhower stopped, introduced himself, asked him how he was transitioning to the university, and invited Dr. Wills to his home for Sunday lunch, marking the beginning of a friendship that endured for decades.

After graduating from Penn State, he joined the Navy, serving as a navigator with the 6th Fleet from 1958 until 1961. He earned a master’s degree in American government in 1963 from the University of Virginia, where he was a Woodrow Wilson fellow, and his Ph.D. in 1967 in political science from the Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Wills began his professional career in 1964 as director of public relations of the Johns Hopkins University and an assistant to Dr. Eisenhower, and in 1969, President Richard M. Nixon named him one of 18 White House fellows for 1969-1970, where he was a special assistant to the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

After leaving the White House, Dr. Wills was vice president for six years of the Washington office of Hill and Knowlton, then international public affairs counsel. From 1976 to 1978, he was president and CEO of the American Land Trust, a national program that raised $300 million to help protect and preserve natural and historic lands.

At the time, Mr. Wills and his wife, the former Suzanne Hansen, whom he married in 1959, were living on Stanmore Court in Rodgers Forge, and it was on their kitchen table that they laid the groundwork for Wills & Associates, which opened for business in 1978. The firm eventually came to represent such clients as Kraft General Foods, J.C. Penney, The Nature Conservancy, Raytheon, W.R. Grace and Ernst & Young.

For years Wills & Associates was located in the Charles Center. In 1994 he was joined by a son, Brad Wills, who took over the business, now headquartered in Bethesda, after his father retired in 2006.


Mr. Wills was always fascinated by politics and the personalities behind politics.

“He was a great fan of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he had studied, and as a younger man he had been president of the Young Democratic Clubs of Maryland,” Mr. Rankin said. “George liked wealth, power and fame, and he enjoyed being in those circles and political circles. But it seemed to me, as he got older, he became more conservative, and we had some pretty good discussions even though we disagreed at times.”

“George had been part of the Helen Bentley crew that changed Baltimore County politics,” Governor Ehrlich said. “He was a great supporter of mine when I was young and in the House of Delegates and then when I ran for Congress.”

Some of his board memberships included the Baltimore Museum of Art, Kennedy Krieger Institute for Handicapped Children, Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, the National Aquarium, Center for Strategic Policy Studies, USF&G Corp., Legal Mutual Corp., AAA Mid-Atlantic, and International Visitors Center/USIA. He was also a national trustee of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies and a St. Paul’s School trustee.

He was a member of the board of Washington College in Chestertown.

“We were on the board together and what a great guy,” said Jack S. “Jay” Griswold. “George added a lot to the board and he loved the college. He tried to help it any way he could, and it was through his contacts that he was able to bring President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush to the college for honorary degrees. It was George who got them to show up.”


The longtime resident of Sherwood Road in Ruxton was an active communicant at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, serving as a vestry member, junior warden and stewardship chair.

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“George was a good friend of mine for many years, through activities at Redeemer and various nonprofits,” Jeffrey P. Ayres, also an active communicant, wrote in an email. “He was the ultimate people person and was everyone’s best friend. George’s mentor and role model was Milton Eisenhower, to whom George often referred in explaining why he was recommending a particular course of action.”

To escape the pressures of business and his civic work, Mr. Wills became an accomplished watercolorist who liked spending summers in Maine, where he spent hours painting landscapes and seascapes, some of which he turned into annual Christmas cards. He and his wife bought a summer home in Nobleboro, Maine, 30 years ago.

One day, while Mr. Wills was with a painting class, a station wagon rattled up, and out stepped Andrew Wyeth, who walked among the students looking at their work, and when he got to Mr. Wills, he paused for a minute.

“He told me he liked the way I handled the light, and then walked on,” Mr. Wills told a reporter some years ago.

He also enjoyed swimming, kayaking, mountain biking and playing tennis. He was a member of the L’Hirondelle Club, Maryland Club and Center Club.


Because of the coronavirus pandemic, plans for an outdoor celebration-of-life gathering this spring at his church are incomplete.

In addition to his wife of 61 years and his son, Mr. Wills is survived by another son, Rick Wills of Pittsburgh; a daughter, Kendall Wills of Seattle; and four grandchildren.