Beryl Elizabeth Williams, 85, `mother of continuing studies' at Morgan State

May 13, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Beryl Elizabeth Williams, a promoter of black culture and women's rights who taught mathematics and English at Morgan State University before being appointed dean of the school's Center for Continuing Education, died Friday of undetermined causes at Genesis Homewood Elder Care. She was 85.

Dr. Williams, whose professional life and volunteer work with many community, civic and church organizations spanned nearly six decades, was actively involved with many organizations when she died.

She had lived since 1948 in a book-filled rowhouse in Wilson Park, near Govans, where she had managed to fill a room with a grand piano, stacks of sheet music, original paintings and pieces of art collected from her numerous trips to Africa. She had moved to Genesis Homewood Elder Care several weeks ago.

In her travels, she also had amassed a rare collection of hand-crafted costumes from African countries.

Her career at the old Morgan State College began in 1948 when she became a part-time English instructor. She became a full-time English and mathematics instructor.

In 1963, she was named the first director of the evening, summer and extension programs and, with her appointment in 1970 as dean of the Center for Continuing Education, she was Morgan's first female academic dean.

"She was an extraordinary lady whose life history was here at Morgan," President Earl S. Richardson said yesterday. "It was clear that Morgan was always the center of her interests. She was a perpetual member of the community here."

Dr. Richardson credited her with much of the success of the continuing education program.

"She always said that continuing education was of great and lasting value to the university, and as the work force changed there would be a need for people to retool their skills," he said.

"And she was always admonishing me to give greater attention to the program," he added with a laugh.

Said Burney J. Hollis, dean of the college of liberal arts, "She really was the mother of continuing studies, and she directed its growth during the formative years."

Dr. Hollis, who has been at Morgan since 1970, described Dr. Williams as a "very fine person" and "one of the most devoted colleagues I've ever seen on campus."

She retired in 1981.

Dr. Williams, who preferred to work unobtrusively for many causes, was born Beryl Elizabeth Warner in Bangor, Maine.

Her father was a Boston & Maine Railroad porter, and her mother owned and operated a Bangor boarding house.

When she was 7, she learned to play the piano and, with the encouragement of her parents, began playing at church services in jails and mental hospitals. That began a lifetime of public service and commitment to helping others.

"Isn't everyone's life like this?" Dr. Williams said in 1987 interview in The Sun.

After graduating from high school in Bangor, she rode the streetcar 12 miles to the University of Maine at Orono, where she was the first black graduate to earn a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1935. In 1940, she earned a master's degree in math there. The university honored her with a doctor of pedagogy degree in 1972.

She taught at several Southern colleges before moving to Baltimore in 1948. She was married in 1942 to Roger Kenton Williams, who established Morgan's psychology department. He died in 1989.

"She was driven by hard times, and being a black person was very hard for her, and she was driven to prove to people that she was the best that she could be," said her son, Scott Warner Williams, a professor of mathematics at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

"She always said that life was different when she was young and glad that it was very different when she was older."

Dr. Williams was vice president of the city school board from 1974 to 1984 and held numerous positions with the United Methodist Church. She was a member of Milton Avenue United Methodist Church.

Some of her numerous organizational memberships included the Maryland Committee for Public Accommodation, Baltimore Urban League, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Citizens for Black History, Morgan State University Women, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, National Council of Negro Women, National Negro Business and Professional Women, Red Cross, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and the Central Maryland Girl Scout Council.

Looking back over her life, Dr. Williams reflected in The Sun interview, "I see a thread of consistency. I've always been concerned about the same things: the needs of black people and the quality of life for all human beings.

"But I've never thought of myself as an activist. It's possible to be conservative and still be quite concerned about improving things."

A memorial service will be held at noon May 22 at Morgan Christian Center, 4307 Hillen Road.

In addition to her son, she is survived by a sister, Althea Mandel of Cleveland; and three granddaughters.

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