When Walter Williams is laid to rest on Friday he will be lauded as a visionary, a philanthropist, and an exceptional businessman. Williams, who died Monday at the age of 88, was undoubtedly all of those things, but after the funeral, at a public reception honoring Williams, friends will have the chance to tell their personal stories about the man Pirate Club Associate Executive Director Mark Hessert calls one of the two most important figures in ECU history.
So numerous and rich are the stories featuring Williams that the reception will certainly not be long enough to include them all, leaving those who loved him the most plenty of material to share whenever they want to remember. But the best stories will have a common theme — one that has little to do with the amount of money or support Williams and his wife Marie gave to support East Carolina and Pitt Community College.
These stories won’t be about capital fund donations or scholarship funds, as impactful as those things have been to countless people in Eastern North Carolina. These stories are of the much “smaller” variety — the tales of a man who loved those around him well in a thousand different ways.
“You just kind of wonder how many hours in a day he had,” said Hessert, who has been a part of the Pirate Club staff since 1991. “Because in addition to running a very successful business he seemed to have time for all of those little things in life that people really appreciate.”
When Hessert’s son played on a Greenville Little League city championship team years ago, he opened the mail one day and found a newspaper clipping about the accomplishment from Williams — complete with a handwritten note. Those notes — words of thanks, congratulations and other well wishes — were legendary in Williams’ orbit. Everyone close to him was accustomed to opening an envelope and seeing that “Trade Oil” stationery with a note of kindness in Williams’ handwriting.
ECU strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors has a host of stories, many of them originating from the monthly lunches he and Williams had together at classic Greenville establishments like Peaden’s Cafeteria and B’s Barbecue. Even into his late 80s Williams always drove to lunch, and Connors took advantage of the opportunity to soak up the wisdom of a man who he believed embodied values like integrity, hard work and family commitment.
“It’s hard for me to explain what Walter meant to me personally and what kind of figure he was in my life,” Connors said. “Just sitting and talking to him made me want to be a better person. In the last few years he spoke real low when he talked to you, so I kind of had to cock my head and get my ear to get every word. I wanted to hear every word he had to say.”
Shortly after Connors arrived at ECU in 1991 and got to know Williams, Williams proved his unique style of generosity when he helped pay for a new house that Connors and his family could not have afforded, and at every point through Connors’ coaching career Williams showed a personal interest in him that went way beyond his stake in ECU.
“After getting to know him a bit in the ‘90s, we became buddies and I didn’t care if he had a nickel,” said Connors. “I never cared if he had money; we just kind of connected as people.”
Through his 15 years as the executive director of the Pirate Club, Dennis Young worked alongside Williams on at least five major capital campaigns. His major gifts to ECU through the years are well-documented — the first $1 million gift to renovate Minges Coliseum in 1993, leading gifts to improve both Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and endowed scholarships for both athletes and student leaders — but the thing that made Williams stand out was his willingness to give time and energy in equal measure to his financial donations.
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Williams was always willing to step up to chair a capital campaign, to call on potential givers to share his own belief in the project and to apply his prodigious business gifts in all manner of ways to help make ECU stronger and more excellent.
“The appreciation I had for Walter was that he was not only willing to step up to the plate and provide financial support to make a campaign successful, but he was willing to give up his time and use his influence to encourage other people to step forward,” Young said. “So many people, Pirate Club members over the years, told me, ‘I’d like to be the next Walter Williams.’ He set such a high bar that he taught people to want to aspire to that level of giving and involvement.”
Of course, ECU was only one of the beneficiaries of Williams’ deep-seated sense of community responsibility. He and Marie also served and supported Pitt Community College and community non-profit organizations like Building Hope Community Life Center and The Salvation Army.
No one questions the permanence of Williams’ legacy within the Pirate Nation, but friends like Hessert, Connors and Young are wrestling with how much they will miss the man who never asked anyone to give more hours, expertise or money than he had already given himself.
A portrait of Walter and Marie hangs in the ECU weight room just outside Connors’ office, and Connors has vowed to put his hand on the painting every day and strive to live out his friend’s dream for ECU.
“It’s going to be a lot different without Walter here, but at the same time I am going to dedicate myself to what I know that he wanted to see in this program,” he said. “I just basically want to pour my soul into this thing with as many years as I have left. I want to make sure we understand that need to keep his vision alive, and I don’t think you understand that unless you have an understanding of the history of East Carolina athletics.”