York Young Willbern was born in Runge, Texas, on December 29, 1915. He received his BA from Southwest Texas State Teachers College in 1934; and received his MA (1938) and PhD (1943) from the University of Texas. In 1937 he married Johnne Bryant and they had two children, Cynthia and Ann Bryant. After he finished at UT, he served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.
Prior to joining the faculty of Indiana University, Professor York Willbern was heavily involved in teaching, having taught in high schools in Texas (1934-1939), and at North Texas State Teachers College (1942-1943), University of Texas (1943), University of Alabama (1946-1957), Duke University (1956), Columbia University (1957), and the University of New Zealand (1954), where he was a Fulbright lecturer in public administration. While at Alabama, Willbern was chairman of the Department of Political Science, chairman of the University Study and Planning Program, and director of the Alabama State Bureau of Public Administration.
York Willbern began his career at Indiana University in 1957 when he was named Professor of Government and director of the Bureau of Government Research. From 1964-1971 he was director of the university's Institute of Public Administration. In 1964, President Herman B Wells bestowed on Willbern the highest academic rank of University Professor of Political Science (now known as Distinguished Professor). In 1967 Professor Willbern was a Fulbright lecturer at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. That same year he received the distinguished honor of being named University Professor of Government, and chairman of the University's Committee on Urban Studies. Willbern chaired the Bloomington Faculty Council Committee in the mid-1960's that first recommended IU should establish a school of public affairs, which evolved into an all-university committee that recommended establishing the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA). Willbern was active in SPEA since its inception in 1972, and was named acting dean of the school for the 1977 spring semester, during the sabbatical leave of Dean Charles F. Bonser.
While at IU Willbern was heavily involved in several organizations aimed at improving state government in Indiana. In 1963 he was named secretary of the Commission to Study Organizational Structure, Personnel, Auditing and Budgeting Policies of the State. In 1968 he was named staff director of the Commission on Executive Reorganization, which planned a study aimed at more efficient state government. Willbern was appointed to the Indiana State Housing Board in 1979.
Prof. Willbern was an accomplished scholar and author of many books and articles on the subjects of cities, public policy-making, planning and education for governmental administrative careers. Prominent among his published books are: Cities and Riverfront Lands; The Withering Away of the City; Governing Metropolitan Indianapolis: the Politics of Unigov , co-authored with C. James Owen; and, Public Administration and Policy Formation , with Emmette Redford, Guy Fox, Ralph Huitt, Comer Clay, and Hugh Hall.
York Willbern was active in several professional organizations related to political science and public administration. He was editor-in-chief of Public Administration Review, president of the American Society for Public Administration, and member of the executive councils of the National Academy of Public Administration, the American Political Science Association, the American Society of Planning Officials, the National Institute of Public Affairs, and the American Association of University Professors, where he was also Alabama State President. Willbern was also a member of the council of Southern Political Science Association, and a member of the International Institute of Administrative Science, Phi Beta Kappa, Pi Sigma Alpha, Pi Kappa Delta, and Alpha Chi.
Although he officially retired from the IU faculty in 1981, York Willbern remained active in teaching on campus for many years, and continued to publish many great works related to government and public administration, such as Governing Metropolitan Indianapolis: the Politics of Unigov , which was published in 1986. He died in Seattle, Washington, in April 2007.