Remembering Jesse T. Williams Sr. | University of Maryland Eastern Shore Marketing Retarget Pixel

Remembering Jesse T. Williams Sr.

  • Alumnus, athlete, ambassador at-large

    Monday, April 26, 2021

    Jesse T. Williams Sr., the personification of the school-spirit slogan “Hawk Pride” that bonds current and future alumni to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, died Sunday, April 25.  He was 81. 

    A 1962 graduate of then-Maryland State College, Williams had a successful career in corporate America in an era when Fortune 500 companies had few Blacks in management.  He worked for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, rising through the ranks to become a vice president and elected officer. 

    Williams cherished his alma mater's role in shaping his life.  After graduation, he and his wife lived in the Midwest -- Illinois, Kansas, Michigan and Ohio -- before settling in Delaware when he retired.

    "He was a true friend to the university," 1963 alum Melvin Hill said, "and he was a true friend of mine.  He always loved the school, and his fellow man.  I'm going to miss him." 

    President Heidi M. Anderson recalled "Jesse Williams was one of the first alums I met upon my arrival in September 2018. He epitomized Hawk Pride with his unwavering  dedication to his alma mater."

    "In my short tenure as president," Anderson said, "I ... cherished my conversations with Jesse and his wise counsel."

    Returning to Delmarva afforded Williams an opportunity to visit his beloved UMES often.  At 6-feet 8-inches, he was not difficult to spot. 

    “Seeing Jesse walk on campus was like seeing a mighty oak move with grace, power and strength,” said Dr. James White, president of UMES' National Alumni Association.  “His stature loomed large, and his shadow was warm and covering.”

    1962 Hawk yearbook senior portrait

    After the state of Maryland restructured its public college governance system, Williams became a charter member of UMES' Board of Visitors when it was formed in 1997 and became the advisory panel's inaugural chairman, a post he held for nearly two decades. 

    Williams hailed from Philadelphia, a renown high school hoops hotspot, and came to Princess Anne in the fall of 1958 principally to play basketball.

    His on-court exploits and unselfishness as an alumnus in giving his “time, talent and treasure” -- a favorite saying he delivered to encourage support for UMES -- earned him recognition in 2015 by having the William P. Hytche Athletic Center's basketball floor named in his honor.

    Williams relished sharing the made-for-Hollywood story of how a gangly, wide-eyed teenager arrived at college by bus, toting an unassuming suitcase with several days' worth of clothes.  He fell in love with a historically Black, land-grant school three hours -- and a world away from the City of Brotherly Love. 

    He regaled those he met with colorful yarns about early 1960s' college life of a student-athlete at a historically Black institution.  He lived in Somerset Hall, when it was a dormitory, and roomed with the late David Riddick, a legendary Philly prep basketball star who died in 2020. 

    Perhaps Williams' most endearing story was about meeting Vernetta Elizabeth Brittingham of Berlin, Md., when they crossed paths in the administration building while waiting to secure monthly meal passes.  It was Oct. 3, 1959. 

    Just before Christmas three years later, they married -- and as a 50th wedding anniversary celebration, the couple renewed their vows in a ceremony on campus conducted by their pastor son, Jesse T. Williams Jr. 

    “He loved this institution.  It was my good fortune to meet him 18 years ago,” athletics director Keith Davidson said. “There was a gentleness about him." 

    As Williams grew more comfortable in his role as the Board of Visitors' chairman, he carved out a role for himself as the university's unofficial ambassador at-large. 

    When a student approached with a question a decade ago about why the university didn't have a pep band, Williams made the first donation toward a campaign he spearheaded to purchase new instruments that helped revive jaunty music in support of the university's basketball teams. 

    “Jesse had an unwavering love for UMES and the strength of his genuine love for UMES was evident whenever he spoke about his alma mater or appeared on campus,” White said.  “His maroon suit was as much a part of him as his degree.  I loved seeing Jesse walk the campus, almost like a proud parent, sharing time with his children.” 

    Williams was honored in 2013 with a “Living Legacy” award from his fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma, in recognition of a half-decade of service and commitment to the organization's ideals. 

    Davidson admired Williams' loyalty to the university and a sincere interest in those who shared his affection for UMES. 

    “He took an interest in me professionally - and personally,” Davidson said.  “What he taught me most of all is the power of relationships.” 

    The university awarded Williams an honorary doctorate of humane letters in December 1998.  He was inducted in the university' athletics hall of fame in 2004.

    Anderson said she "will always hear his words 'UMES gave me my life and my wife.'  Like so many others, we will miss him dearly."

    Funeral plans have not yet been announced.