By Reginald Stuart
WASHINGTON, DC — Just as the late Detroit automobile executive George Russell did decades earlier when he embraced Meharry Medical College and helped catapult it into the future with a new look and attitude, another fellow Detroiter, attorney David Williams, came to Nashville in 2000 and enthusiastically and persistently gave Vanderbilt University his trademark bear hug, helped in every way he could to carve its niche for this century.
As a Vanderbilt Law School law teacher, university general counsel, vice chancellor, teammate with Chancellor Nick Zeppos and eventually athletic director, Williams found no mountain high enough, no river deep enough, no valley wide enough, to dampen his energy and desire to help thrust Vanderbilt forward.
He worked closely with Zeppos to help Vanderbilt treasure its rich history, shed its association with negative chapters of its past and set the stage for the university to evolve as an institution steeped in learning opportunities and enhanced with diversity.
As Williams, his family and a few members of his massive Vanderbilt supporters were gathering for breakfast last Friday at the landmark Pancake Pantry on 21st Avenue South, for the start of a series of weekend celebrations of his service upon his retirement, the jubilant chatter suddenly ground to a stunning silence. The room was silent. Williams, 71, who had announced his retirement just a few months ago, had collapsed and died, apparently of an aneurism, medical professionals said.
David Williams, a man who had so quickly adopted Nashville and been as rapidly adopted by the Music City, had bid the city adieu.
“He was the soul of Vanderbilt,” said Dr. Andre L. Churchwell, the Levi Watkins, Jr., M.D. Chair at Vanderbilt and Chief Diversity Officer at its University Medical Center.
“David Williams was a big man, but his size was dwarfed by a larger heart and soul,” said Dr. Churchwell. “In recent years, he seemed to be present or involved at almost every major event that influenced the progress of Diversity and Inclusion on campus. These great works do not tell his whole VU story,” he continued.
“For his impact behind the scenes and on VU athletics and its success, will be another legacy that will stand the test of time. In the life of a major university like Vanderbilt, there are very few times when one can categorically state that a person is irreplaceable.
“His life and work place him in a singular and small cadre of faculty who have left their indelible mark on this university,” said Dr. Churchwell, echoing university peers at Vanderbilt and elsewhere. “He will not and cannot be replaced,” he said.
Dr. Kevin Rome Jr., President of nearby Fisk University, said Williams, who was serving on the Fisk faculty this semester as a volunteer faculty peer, had been on campus the day before he died to speak to the university’s board of trust.
“He (Williams) was just a kind, thoughtful person who wished to make a difference,” said Dr. Rome. “I’m sad that he’s gone,” Rome said. He said Williams often walked the small Fisk campus “to soak up the feel of what Fisk represents.”
Vanderbilt Chancellor Nick Zeppos had little public comment since word of Williams death spread. A university spokesman said Zeppos was attending to the needs of Williams’ family. In his brief statement regarding Williams’ death, Zeppos praised his colleague’ and his work.
“David Williams stood tall on this campus, in this city and in college athletics nationally as an incomparable leader, role model and dear friend to me and so many others,” said Zeppos. “We are devastated by this loss. His impact on our community is immeasurable and will be felt for generations to come. We offer our deepest condolences to Gail, his children and the entire Williams family on this immense loss.”
Close colleague said Zeppos was really shaken by the loss of William, he was like a favorite older brother.
Across the city, words of praise were offered, much like the ones he collected while alive.
Williams, who embraced Pearl High’s history via Perry Wallace as enthusiastically as he did his popular high school alma mater in Detroit, Mumford High School, was made an honorary member of the PHS Class of ‘65, in recognition of his work to document Wallace’s role in leading Vanderbilt’s desegregation of SEC intercollegiate basketball. He was also presented a PHS T-shirt for that year.
In many respects, Williams was quietly on a similar track of history as he was the first black athletic director in the SEC. Just as Perry Wallace helped make player history as a college basketball player, Williams was making conference history as an athletic director. Under his management, Vanderbilt won 19 league titles and national championships in bowling, baseball, basketball and women’s tennis.
In Williams’ hometown, Detroit, where he is to be buried Monday, tributes were flowing, honoring the hometown kids who would sneak off from his neighborhood Baptist church to Aretha Franklin’s church to hear the Franklin Sisters sing.
“I knew him quite well,” said Federal Judge Damon Keith, a veteran federal jurist who sits on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. “His legacy goes beyond Vanderbilt. He was a great leader, committed to Vanderbilt, the University of Detroit Mercy, to black people and to education in general,” said Judge Keith. “I admired him tremendously.
The University of Detroit Mercy, a small private Jesuit college in the city, where Williams earned a MBA in 1979 and law degree in 1982 and married his girlfriend Gail in 1983, after she earned her law degree at UD, sent a special note about his loss. He served on the university’s board of trust.
Williams, The Tennessee Tribune’s 2017 Person of the Year said in an interview just last year, David Williams reflected on his role in helping Vanderbilt reach its next step.
“This is not the place I came to 18 years ago, I never had any idea it (Vanderbilt) would change,” Williams said in his Tennessee Tribune interview. “Vanderbilt is doing this quietly,” he said, acknowledging the institution’s steady approach toward its status as a minority majority institution, one in which an institution has a wide variety of ethnic and cultural groups in its population, yet no racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority.
Williams was nicknamed the Goldfather — the school colors are black and gold — for his success at the school. He had been the SEC’s second-longest tenured athletic director behind Kentucky’s Mitch Barnhart when he announced his retirement last September. Malcolm Turner took over Feb. 1, Williams stayed on as a full-time law professor. He also was establishing a Sports, Law & Society program at Vanderbilt Law School.
Indeed that is a long way from Vanderbilt’s clear standing as a historically white institution with deep roots in the South. When he joined Vanderbilt, the university reported a minority enrollment of about 22 percent. Today, some 45 percent of its enrollment is made of a mix of racial minorities and the trend line shows it growing, according to federal enrollment data.
Williams had a full plate of goals to be achieved after his retirement, leaving the challenge torch in the hands of Zeppos and those he calls upon to achieve them. Even in his absence, however, he has left some tips on how his work can be remembered. The family requested earlier this week that any donations in his memory should be given to the Perry Wallace Jr. Memorial Scholarship Fund at Vanderbilt University.
David is survived by his wife, Gail, his four children, Erika, David III, Samantha and Nicholas; his six grandchildren, David IV, Jazmin,Tiffany, Dayon, Daiah and Zoe; and his great grandson, Desmond. He is preceded in death by his father David Williams, who had served as one of the famed Tuskegee airmen and a lifelong high school math teacher, and his mother Juanita Wallace Williams, a Detroit public school teacher. David will also be remembered by his mother-in-law, Malissa Carr, his brothers- and sisters-in-law, several nieces, nephews and cousins.
The family of David Williams II would like to thank everyone for the words of support and love during this tough time.
We are heartbroken by the passing of our beloved husband, father and friend. Yet our hearts have been warmed by the many expressions of love.
Services will take place on Friday, February 15 at Temple Church on 3810 Kings Lane in Nashville, TN and are open to the public.
Visitation will be from 11:00 am – 1:00 pm, followed by the funeral service at 1:15 pm.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations be made to the Perry E. Wallace Jr. Basketball Scholarship at Vanderbilt University.
Donations can be made by sending a check to the Perry E. Wallace Jr. Basketball Scholarship, Vanderbilt University Gift and Donor Services, PMB 407727, 2301 Vanderbilt Place, Nashville, TN 37240-7727; on-line at vu.edu/wallacescholarship; or by calling the National Commodore Club office at (615) 322-4114.
Shari Cohen in Detroit contributed to this report.