Richard T. “Stick” Williams ’75 – My Carolina Story

For many years, a member of the GAA Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings, and we are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.

Richard T. "Stick" WIlliams

“… what a foundation that was established for me while I was here!”

June 11, 2022

Listen Now

I know many of you are as sick of hearing from me this morning as I am of hearing from me.  But I’m delighted to be here and I’m pinch hitting again.  Unfortunately, Veronica could not be here to share her Carolina Story, and I was so looking forward to that.

I jotted down a couple of things. I hope I’m not going to have to give you a narrative because I don’t have a narrative to share.

I have four things to point out:

  • I was far better prepared entering Carolina than I ever would have imagined.
  • I was far better prepared leaving Carolina than I ever would have imagined.
  • Like Coach Davis indicated this morning, I met God—I met the Lord while I was here, and
  • I met my wife here at Carolina.

I grew up in Greensboro I attended all black schools through high school. Graduated from Dudley High School in Greensboro and then all of a sudden I’m on this campus. I had never been around so many white people in my life!

It was very interesting. I had decided that I would play college football and I was never really focused on attending Carolina to play football. I was a Carolina fan because of Charlie Scott, but I was not focused on coming here. I always assumed that I would go to an HBCU to play football.

Philip, I don’t know whether this is the case, but I generally use it as part of my story to say that my senior year at Dudley was one of the first few years that Carolina offered the opportunity for black schools to nominate folks for the Morehead. So that’s what caused me to apply to Chapel Hill—I would not have applied otherwise, but you have to apply to be a nominee. Dudley leaders nominated me.  I did not get the Morehead, but I was accepted and by the grace of God, I came to the campus.

I played football my freshman year. You see me limping—I tore up my knee my freshman year. That changed everything! I didn’t realize what an extraordinary university I was attending until I stopped playing football and had to become a student—and I say “become a student” jokingly. Though football helped my transition, it was quite the culture shock being in some of those huge freshman classes like economics. I’m one of the few blacks in there and I’ve gotta be honest with you, I wondered if I belonged.

I put Stick Williams in the back of the classroom. Nobody else put him there, I put myself there! I didn’t want to be seen by a professor, I didn’t want to engage with a professor, I didn’t even want the other students to really know that I was there. I thought everybody else was a genius and I didn’t know if I belonged. One day I came to myself. I said if this was football, if this was the football field, whatever it took to start is what you would do. That was another transformation to me. From that point on, I was on the front row of every class. I didn’t see the geniuses after that! It was one-on-one – me and the instructor. That was a huge transformation in my life. The rest of my academic career here was very good as a result.

But there was so much that I didn’t experience while I was here. I didn’t know you could have a relationship with professors. That was not part of discussions in high school and family growing up. After I came back in later years, I heard such great stories from others about the time that they spent here and the professors that they engaged with, and the fraternities and so forth. I didn’t experience any of that.

Drinking from the Old Well the first day of class—I never heard about that until we came back to Chapel Hill in 1990. So, there were so many things that make Carolina great that I did not experience.  But what I learned after leaving here was that I had really received a great education. I was prepared.

I told you that I met God while I was here. That was during my junior year. I received Him into my life. I became a member of the Black Christian Fellowship. This is very interesting to me:  I began to read the Bible. There are some amazing accounts in the Bible about God’s interventions in His people’s lives. I started asking myself, “Is this true? Is this really real? Did God really do these things? Can God really do these things?” I wasn’t intentionally challenging Him, but it was kind of like God took it as a challenge. [God said] “You want to challenge me? You want to test me? Let’s let the CPA exam be the test!”

I had no intent on taking the CPA exam! I was a C accounting student. It was crazy that I was even majoring in accounting. I’d never heard of it before I decided I was going to major in it. I just knew that there was a small group of people majoring in something called accounting, a larger group of people majoring in business. I said, “These folks are going to get jobs!”  Well after the first class, I knew why there were so few people majoring in accounting! It whupped me!  I was just too stubborn to quit, and so I stayed with it. I had rationalized it: If I can get a job with a company working in their accounting department, that’ll be good. Well, all-of-a-sudden God has made the CPA exam the test!  Accounting back then was four and a half years. I had to work during summer, so I had to do four and a half years. That last semester, I spent teaching myself the accounting that I didn’t learn before. Now I want you to understand that a C accounting student teaching himself accounting makes no sense whatsoever. You didn’t learn it the first time, how are you going to teach yourself? But I prepared for that CPA exam during that semester, and I passed it the first time. I don’t know about the stats now, but back then maybe 10% of the people who took the exam passed it the first time. I passed it the first time. There was no doubt in my mind that all of what I read about God was true because now He has done it in my life. I had done something that I never, ever could have imagined.

But that set up some pressures. As a result of that, I got to work for one of the Big 8 CPA firms, Arthur Andersen, the nation’s largest.  What an extraordinary experience! When people asked where I attended school and I responded “Carolina”, they suddenly had expectations! I didn’t appreciate the value of the Carolina education until I saw how other people reacted or responded to my saying, “I’m a Carolina graduate.” Now they had higher expectations than I had of myself! I had to deliver! I had to “step up!” And I had to be what they expected! Just another great transformation, a great point of my life.

After several years with Arthur Andersen, I went to work for Duke Energy. At Duke Energy, I was always the first—the first in Corporate Finance, the first to be the face of the company in Corporate Communications, the first as a branch manager in Shelby, which was interesting because back then to become a branch manager at a location that size country club membership came into play.  I had to apply for membership in Cleveland Country Club. That was new to them, and it was definitely new to us! After much debate among their members, we were accepted as members.  An amazing experience for my family and me.  After a couple of years in Shelby, the company transferred us to Chapel Hill. So now I’m coming back to Chapel Hill in a very different capacity. I got to know the town and the campus like I had never known before. But even before that, some very interesting things.

My early years in corporate finance—I wondered if I was smart because every time we had round-table discussions, I never came up with the same solutions as the other folks around the table. I didn’t understand that. Am I just not smart? Do I not understand this stuff?  But one day I had the guts to put my stupid idea on the table. It changed the conversation. It completely changed the conversation, and we created a far better product than we would have before. That said to me “You’re not dumb—you’re different! Everything about you is different from the people that you work with and the people that you’re around. You have got to bring your differences every time you do anything from this point on.

And I have to say that I’d still have all my hair if I hadn’t taken that advice at Duke Energy, because the culture at Duke Energy was sameness. 80% of the folks there were engineers, and they thought, and they processed the same. We had a CEO, Bill Lee, who said that there’s a small group of us whose Myers Briggs personality traits were different from the majority, and we ought to start listening to them. So, I took that as a charge to be more forceful with my thoughts.  Well, my vice president was not very interested in my differences.  I would still have all of my hair if I had not challenged him so often.

But recognizing the importance of being different, from that point on, I became willing to be Stick Williams. I already had the name, but I was willing to be the person Stick Williams in every situation that I found myself. That was another one of those transformations. My goal at Duke Energy was that, even though I was the first, every time I would leave an organization, I wanted them to say “Why did it take us so long to have somebody like him? We need more people like him in this role.” So not just be content to be the first, but to make it such that they know they need my kind of differences.

So, we came to Chapel Hill in 1990. I had been a very active community leader for Duke Energy in Charlotte and Shelby. Chapel Hill was a different animal. It’s changed now, but back then, town leaders did not like business people – especially the elected leaders. Now here I am—I represent one of the largest private companies in the county.  And, I had to be Stick Williams – being intentional about bringing my ideas and opinions.  I did not fear town leaders like most other business people.  I was bolder and more forceful in approach. The Chancellor at that time was Paul Hardin. He took note of that. ‘Who is this crazy guy, and how can he talk to the town council people this way?’ So, one day he came up to me and he said, “Have you ever thought about being on the Board of Trustees?” I know I gave him a crazy look. I said, “I’m not a CEO. I’m not rich. I’m not Lowry [Caudill].”  (Just kidding.  I like giving Lowry a hard time)

Everything changed. The university had given so much to me, now here was the opportunity for me to give to the university. So first, I was invited to be on the Board of Visitors and later chaired the Board of Visitors.  During a weak moment for Doug (and I know Ann Cates must have pushed him into this) I was invited to be a member of the General Alumni Association Board and I later chaired the GAA Board. I did get elected to the Board of Trustees and I later chaired the Board of Trustees. All of these were just absolutely amazing experiences. And to bring Stick Williams and his crazy ideas to those roles just meant a tremendous amount to me.

I got a chance to do a lot of similar things, but what a foundation that was established for me while I was here! My experiences here were far different from so much of what I heard, but my goodness, the education that I got here made an extraordinary difference.

My wife and I met while I was here and she, too, has done some amazing things. Her experience is different from my experience. Teresa didn’t come from all black schools. Teresa had to help integrate her junior high and high schools and her experiences were far different. I wish you could hear some of the challenges she confronted. But together we pushed one another, encouraged one another, and supported one another.  One day I came home, and she asked me, “Do you know that I pray for you every day that you go to work?” Then it started making sense, why all these opportunities were coming to me. So, what a great life we have enjoyed! Those of you that are new might not know that my wife and I are the only couple to have each chaired the GAA Board. It’s something that we’re very proud of.

And that’s My Carolina Story.