At 80, pioneering educator looks back

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40 when he was 12 is gone, replaced by a pickup and Chevrolet Caprice, and the cows he used to milk at 6 a.m. have been replaced by beef cattle.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


Dr. Williams credits his mother, Hattie, who died in the early 1960s, for his methods of dealing with people. "She was very calm and even-tempered, always," he says. "I admired her tremendously for that."

Dr. Williams also is known for his genuine interest in people -- and his memorable grip.

"When he says, 'I'm so happy to meet you,' he really means it," Mrs. Sterling says.

"I always kid him about his handshake," Mr. Lisby says. "I say to him that he may say he wants to be an educator, but I tell him he really wants to go into law enforcement.

"He shakes for so long, it's like putting handcuffs on someone."

But education is Dr. Williams' vocation, one that was at times quite an undertaking for a black youngster at the beginning of the century.


"We knew we were going to school," says Dr. Williams, referring to his parents' belief in education.

The long road to education

After getting up before dawn to do farm chores, the Williams children began their walk of several miles to the colored school in Aberdeen.

After seventh grade, Dr. Williams had to take a train from Havre de Grace to Elkton in Cecil County to finish his high school education.

His trek didn't end there. He went to Bowie Normal School (now Bowie State University) for a teaching certificate and finished his bachelor's degree -- commuting by train for five summers -- at Virginia State University in Richmond.

His rail travel still wasn't over. On Saturdays, while he was employed by the school system, he was heading to New York, where he earned a doctorate from New York University.


It's a long road that has led him to encourage those around him -- nieces, nephews, neighbors and former students.

"I've known Dr. Williams since I was a 6-year-old in pigtails," says Susan A. Tucker, assistant principal of Roye-Williams Elementary Havre de Grace, the school that is half-named for Dr. Williams. "He was my principal.

"If you want to further your education, he will help you get there," says Mrs. Tucker, who remembers Dr. Williams' financial contributions so her sister could go to college.

"He lives a modest life," Mrs. Sterling says. "But instead of investing his money in stocks or bonds, he invests it by giving it to other human beings."

Monetarily and emotionally. "He has been a friend and patron to my three sons, especially my youngest, Ted," Mrs. Sterling says.

Last year, when Ted, a strapping blond, was a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., he invited Dr. Williams for grandparents day, because his grandparents are deceased.


"He told everyone, 'My grandfather is coming, too,' " Mrs. Sterling says. "I don't know who enjoyed it more, Ted or Dr. Williams," she says, acknowledging that the whole family was amused by the double-takes from students and instructors.

Today, on his dining-room buffet amid the many awards he has received, Dr. Williams keeps a remembrance of that weekend -- a large photo of himself and Ted.

There are lots of mementos in the house -- portraits of his parents, a duotone of Dr. Williams in his graduation robes, and helium balloons floating from a family birthday party for Dr. Williams. He's particularly proud of a real milk can -- solid, black and well-used -- in the old-fashioned kitchen, where his work overalls hang nearby on a hook.

Among those mementos is a tattered, yellowed book, "Maryland Public School Laws -- 1927." He keeps it to remember how it used to be: "Colored" elementary school teachers earned $65 a month; white teachers $95 a month; "colored" students went to school 160 days a year; white students for 180 days.

But even after 60 years -- and plans to retire, again, in June -- there doesn't seem to be an end to Dr. Williams' sometimes lonely mission in education.

Leaning back in a dining-room chair, his expressive hands gesturing, he says, "If you believe in something, you have to stand alone. . . . A lot of times, I was standing alone."