Stillman's Own, Lt. General Willie J. Williams, Speaks at Founders Day
By Robert DeWitt Senior Writer
Last Modified: Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 11:40 p.m.
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TUSCALOOSA | As high school graduation neared, Willie J. Williams wasn’t thinking about college. He and two friends had plans to join the Air Force.
“I had an excuse,” he said. “I had a good excuse. I was a welfare kid, and they didn’t have money to send me to school.”
But when some of his teachers heard that he wasn’t going to college, they called Williams and his friends into a room.
“Their question posed to us was, ‘If we get you some help, will you go to school?’ ” Williams said. “And my answer, as you can imagine, was yes. And the reason it was yes was because they took my excuse away. I no longer had an excuse for not attending.”
Those teachers were Stillman College alumni, and he wound up at their alma mater. The young man wound up with a military career, but not as an enlisted man in the Air Force.
Lt. Gen. Willie J. Williams, resplendent in his dress blue uniform complete with three-star emblems on the collar, returned to Stillman for the Founders Day ceremony Thursday. He is director of the Marine Corps staff at Marine Corps headquarters, making him third in the chain of command for the entire U.S. Marine Corps, behind only the commandant and the assistant commandant.
“The groundwork for who I am was laid here at Stillman,” Williams told students, faculty, staff and alumni assembled in Birthright Hall. He noted that the ceremony was held at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, precisely 92 years since the end of World War I, the traditional time of commemoration on Veterans Day.
Williams is a Livingston native and grew up in Moundville. He graduated from Moundville Public School in 1970, the last year before the all-black high school was merged with Hale County High. He received a bachelor’s degree in business from Stillman and has since earned advanced degrees.
Williams is the third black Marine to attain the rank of lieutenant general and is the highest ranking black Marine now serving.
“A native son has returned to water his roots,” said Stillman President Ernest McNealey. “We rejoice at his arrival.”
In addition to the Founders Day speech, Williams was to speak at the Marine Corps League’s annual celebration of the Marine Corps’ birthday Thursday night.
McNealey noted that Williams grew up in the 1960s, one of six children who picked cotton and did odd jobs to earn money. He had to work his way through college.
“At Stillman, Gen. Williams paid his dues and paid his way through Stillman working 48 hours a week,” McNealey said.
Williams, who has visited every continent except Antarctica, described his return to the South in general and Stillman in particular as “refreshing.”
“There’s a feeling of home and a feeling of renewal,” he said at a reception following the ceremony.
Coming from an all-black high school and a historically black college, going into a fully integrated Marine Corps was a change, he said. But the shared experience of all Marines made the transition easier.
“The Marine Corps valued diversity,” he said. “The Marine Corps promoted based on merit. When you join the Marine Corps, there is a kindred spirit.”
In his speech, Williams drew a comparison between the Marine Corps and Stillman, saying both drilled into him the same values that his mother instilled.
“One thing they all had in common was the mantra to do your best, to always give 100 percent and strive for excellence in all things you do,” Williams said.
Williams pointed to a Marine Corps legend, Sgt. Maj. Hashmark Johnson. A native of Mount Hebron in Greene County, he attended Stillman from 1920-22 and became one of the Marine Corps’ first black drill sergeants.
“Hashmark was determined to move this nation and this Corps so that others can be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities of this great nation,” Williams said. “He never quit up until the day of his passing. Like me, I know that Hashmark Johnson would be proud of this institution because Marines pride themselves on camaraderie, fellowship and brotherhood.
“And there’s a bond similar to what you find at Stillman. It’s that bond that you get from attending a place like Stillman that sets you up for success.”
Williams stressed that the United States promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, with the operative word being “pursuit.”
Preparation is the key to taking advantage of opportunities, he said. Students have no more excuses once they are prepared.
“That is what Stillman is doing unto this day,” Williams said. “Stillman is eradicating excuses. Stillman is here to prepare you to take advantage of those opportunities. They will take those excuses away from you. And for that, I will be eternally grateful.”
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