At 80, pioneering educator looks back

April 24, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

Percy Williams' life has come full circle -- from small boy helping out on the family farm to noted state and Harford County educator returning to the homestead.

Little has changed, and much has changed.

The child who, when he was 7, moved to the house his father built on 60 acres in Havre de Grace recently turned 80.

His birthday April 10 has been cause for celebration around the state for weeks and will culminate in a party tomorrow night at the Richlin Ballroom in Edgewood.

Eight of his nine siblings are still alive, but only he and sisters Mary and Gladys share the family home. He returned there in the mid-1980s to care for his ailing wife, Bernice, and 100-year-old father, Vandella, who both have since died.

The horse and buggy he used to drive along U.S. 40 when he was 12 is gone, replaced by a pickup and Chevrolet Caprice, and the cows he used to milk at 6 a.m. have been replaced by beef cattle.

But Dr. Williams still gets up at the first light of dawn, feeding the 16 cattle and doing farm chores. "There's no such thing as a sleep-in day," he says.

And that's before he spends his day visiting schools and going to meetings as president of the Harford County school board.

On a recent blue-sky, green-grass Monet morning, Dr. Williams couldn't meet with a visitor until 10 because he had to take the old truck to buy a load of hay.

Unfortunately, the vehicle refused to cooperate.

"Sometimes things don't go as planned," says the county's elder statesman calmly.

Dr. Williams would know. Growing up black in a segregated society wasn't easy.

Sitting at a linen-covered, dining table in the comfortable farmhouse, he looks back, way back, at a life of determination and accomplishment.

How does one capsulize a lifetime? His thoughts fast-forward and rewind randomly, pulling together the story of a man who has worked hard to make his way up through the education ranks.

It's an impressive list that started in 1933: teacher, principal, county supervisor of colored schools and the first black assistant state superintendent of schools in 1970.

Then he retired in 1982, sort of.

Since then, he's served twice on the Harford County school board.

He is finishing his second tour of duty on the board and his second stint as board president.

He also is this year's president of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, a group he's been involved with since 1987, that provides in-service training to school board members and represents them on public education issues.

'Most celebrated member'

The accolades from colleagues spill out easily.

"Of all the school systems and school boards I've worked with, he is absolutely the most celebrated member I've met," says Ray R. Keech, who has been superintendent of Harford County schools for the past six years and held similar posts in other states for 24 years.

What is particularly poignant to Dr. Keech is recalling the feelings of his wife, Wanda, about Dr. Williams. Mrs. Keech died April 1.

"My wife always said he is one of the sweetest people she's ever encountered," Dr. Keech said. "I'll never forget it."

That's not to say that Dr. Williams does not take a stand when necessary. In 1943, he interrupted his teaching career to become an officer in the Army during World War II.

In his first assignment in Europe, he was the only black officer of an all-black troop. The white officers had separate living quarters from the troops, but they weren't willing to have Dr. Williams join them.

"They grew up in the South," he says, diplomatically. "It was the way they were accustomed to. . . .

"But I had to object," he says. Finally, though, he decided to stawith the troops, with whom he felt more comfortable. "I was in Europe . . . I had to protect myself."

His imperturbable spirit is well-known, says school board member Anne D. Sterling. She laughs, though, when she recounts a favorite pastime of members of what she calls the "Percy Williams fan club."

"It's such an unusual thing [for him to lose his temper]," she says. "We try to remember if we've seen him angry."

there've been a couple of times. "Yes, I've seen him angry," says Woodrow Grant, chief of the state's equity assurance division for schools. "In a state department meeting one time when the deprived kids weren't getting their due, he was extremely angry but very deliberate."

He bides his time to get the job done, Mrs. Sterling says. "He doesn't mind if his opponents have underestimated him. . . . He's often 10 jumps ahead of the people around him."

'I'm the general here'

School board member George D. Lisby, who has known Dr. Williams for 50 years, loves to tell this story: One time there was an auditor from the federal government, who evidently was pestering Dr. Williams with questions.

"Finally, Dr. Williams turned to him and said, 'Have you audited the Aberdeen Proving Ground?' 'Yes,' the man answered. 'Did you tell the general what to do?' 'No,' the man said. 'Well, I'm the general here.' "

The man got the message, says Mr. Lisby, chortling at the memory.

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