(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards dinner and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
As a boy in Greensboro, Richard Tyrone Williams ’75 earned the nickname “Stick” for being one of the best hitters in sandlot baseball. He’s a little surprised it has stayed with him this long. But even as a corporate officer of Duke Energy, even as chair of Carolina’s Board of Visitors, of the General Alumni Association and now of the Board of Trustees, people have felt comfortable calling him Stick.
But then, Stick is a man who makes people comfortable. Before you know it, you’re telling him all sorts of things. He’s smiling encouragement and listening intently, and you’re realizing how much you like him.
If you point this out to Stick, you’ll get another smile.
“Most of my career I’ve been kind of a reluctant leader,” he says. “But I’ve always been very good at influencing people and being personable. As a result of those traits, folks just found it easy to follow me. I never have the sense that I’m an expert at anything. I always pick the brains of other people about what would make us successful. If you are interested in people, they will absolutely tell you the world.”
Stick’s life is a great “University of the People” story. As a fellow trustee puts it, Stick Williams wasn’t someone born on third base who thought he hit a triple. Stick Williams was born in the Ray Warren Homes housing project, one of three sons of a single mom.
But as we’ve said, Stick was a guy who could find his way around the bases if you just let him into the batter’s box.
He came to Carolina on an academic scholarship, but his real plan was to major in football. He finagled permission to live in Ehringhaus dorm with the scholarship players. With a teenager’s naivete, he figured professional football would earn him a fine living. His freshman season, he tore up his knee. Football was over.
Now with three decades worth of perspective on that misfortune, Stick says, “It was the best thing that has ever happened to me. And the most painful thing.”
The ache of the slowly healing knee sharpened Stick’s focus on his academic talent-and on the academic opportunity at Carolina he might have let slip past. He studied hard and passed the CPA exam on his first try, and his Carolina degree opened the door to his career with Duke Energy. He’s made practically a second career of serving his alma mater.
These past years Stick has led Carolina’s Board of Trustees as it has wrestled with tough personnel decisions, with raising tuition, and with finding money to build top-notch buildings and labs. He guided himself and the board through each decision by asking what would raise Carolina’s standing as a leading public university.
And Stick Williams is this University’s first African American to chair the trustees. It’s not something he’s talked much about. But it’s been on his mind the whole time.
“I have vivid memories about folks being pushed around by fire hoses, attacked by dogs and clubbed by policemen,” during the civil rights movement, he says. “And it is clear to me that they were willing to do that for me; they were never going to have opportunities like being a student at UNC or being chair of the board of trustees. It’s been a very short period of time since black students have even been welcome at the University. But now, one of the premier universities in the nation has a black chairman of the board of trustees.”
And that is the legacy both of Carolina and of one of its heaviest hitters. No wonder the nickname sticks.
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal has been awarded since 1978 to alumni and others who have provided outstanding service to the GAA and/or to the University. The award is presented at the annual Alumni Luncheon on the weekend of reunions and Commencement in May. This year’s recipients are Doris Betts ’54 of Pittsboro, Richard Cole of Chapel Hill, Julian Robertson Jr. ’55 of New York and Richard “Stick” Williams ’75 of Huntersville.