What’s on My Mind: David Williams II

"What's On My Mind" illustration of Chancellor Nicholas S. ZepposOn the morning of Feb. 8, 2019, I had woken up excited and happy. I was heading to our Board of Trust meeting, where I was to present a resolution to have the Vanderbilt Student Recreation and Wellness Center named for my colleague and friend, David Williams. The week before, David had retired as Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs. We had also made plans for David’s portrait to be painted by one of the nation’s great portrait artists, Simmie Knox, who did the presidential portrait of Bill Clinton, marking the first official presidential portrait done by an African American artist. David was to travel to Washington, D.C. this week to sit for that portrait.

As I presented these ideas to the board, there was a sense of deep history and triumph—yes, triumph, to use the title of the documentary David and I made about Perry Wallace, who broke the color barrier in the SEC. This recognition of David was set to occur less than three years after the board had approved a resolution to remove the odious name of Confederate Memorial Hall—an initiative that David passionately fought for. Some may say that “winners” write history. But this victory was won by David not by the sword or the rifle, but by the justness of the cause.

David’s portrait would be the fifth in the Trailblazers series that he worked so hard to obtain for Vanderbilt. Like the other four, it would be displayed in Kirkland Hall, a place David always reminded me was all white, except for custodial staff, until his arrival in 2000. It was so fitting that he would join Perry Wallace, Walter Murray, Bishop Johnson and Jim Lawson in this series of portraits depicting the pioneers who sought and dared—who had the courage—to change Vanderbilt.

When David and I discussed these honors, he demurred and said, “You don’t have to do it; I don’t need that kind of attention … and I am not going anywhere.” I almost jumped out of my seat in disagreement! I said, “David, you are one of the most important people in Vanderbilt’s history. You have done more to make us better than anyone I know. It is my privilege to make you visible and eternal among the others who have truly made this university better. You deserve this, and this will be done.” He just gave me that smile.

David and I met almost 19 years ago when he first came to Vanderbilt with former Chancellor Gordon Gee from Ohio State. From the start, we had much in common. We were both lawyers. We both were born and raised in the upper Midwest, he in Detroit and I in Milwaukee. We both had practiced law and then became law professors. For each of us, education was our launching pad for a better life.

Yet we were very different, too. His skin is black and mine white. My ancestors had crossed the Atlantic over 100 years ago from Greece, on a frightening but intentional journey to a better place, they hoped. His had crossed the Atlantic, in chains, through the so-called Middle Passage, to be enslaved in a new nation that somehow yet declared that it was founded on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and that all were created equal. My family had never lived in the South. David’s roots were not only in his beloved Detroit, but deep in the Jim Crow South, in Mississippi.

That day almost 19 years ago is forever in my memory. As I thought about my life, I realized that other than my immediate family, I had spent more time with David than anyone else.

David was always there for me. He was my trusted adviser who shepherded and stewarded me and the university through so many challenges. He was my friend, my booster, my counselor, my conscience. We worked on college athletics, where he quietly defined a new way—the David Williams Way, the Vanderbilt Way— where student-athletes are students. He was behind so many wins, but more importantly, he created an environment where grades could skyrocket alongside scoreboards, and where student-athletes could build the foundation, on and off the field, for a rich and fulfilling life.

We have much to be proud of at Vanderbilt, and I am here to tell you that the better, more equitable and inclusive Vanderbilt we all know today bears the marks of David Williams. David knew we could not be a truly beloved community until we began our own process of truth and reconciliation with our university’s past. Vanderbilt had expelled Jim Lawson for daring to protest peacefully American apartheid in downtown Nashville. Vanderbilt had driven away Godfrey Dillard, who had joined Perry Wallace as our first African American scholarship athletes, as a “troublemaker.” And Vanderbilt had turned on Perry when he dared in 1970 to talk truthfully to the media about his loneliness, alienation, fear and pain not just playing in Starkville or Tuscaloosa, but on the Vanderbilt campus. Each time it was David who built the bridges to the past, who cajoled, argued and nudged us to listen to them, to learn from them, to look at our history, and eventually to reconcile and honor them—to love them.

David never forgot his own past—or the broader history of those who came before him. He used his knowledge to empower improvement, to change how people think, to be the first to do something differently. He was the first African American vice chancellor at Vanderbilt; the first African American to oversee an athletics program in the SEC. He helped me hire our first African American football coach. He was part of so many “firsts,” but he also honored those who came before him: the Perry Wallaces, the Walter Murrays, the Bishop Joseph Johnsons, the Dorothy Wingfields. He was not only indebted to them, but he drew strength from them to impact the present and the future.

On his first day of retirement, just over two weeks ago, he came to see me in my office at the end of the day to see, of course, how I was doing. We had talked often about the “what’s next?” question, and by that day, a big to-do list had evolved: working to have great schools for our young people in Nashville, creating good jobs and affordable housing, addressing Nashville’s rising income inequality, talking about health care disparities and access to care, transportation issues, mentoring the next generation of African American lawyers who will become leaders.

David left my office that day, and I was in awe of his capacity to live, to give, to love, to help. I figured this indomitable spirit and force also had on his to-do list world peace and world justice. Why not? If anyone could pull it off, David could.

On Friday, thousands gathered to remember David at The Temple Church. We wept for what we have lost, but we celebrated all that David gave us and leaves with us. The most important of those gifts are his beloved family, his wife and our colleague, Gail, and his four remarkable children, each of whom is following in his footsteps in their own careers and lives.

For all of the recognitions and plans we have to remember him, the true power of David’s life was his ability to transform all those who had the privilege of knowing him. We can best honor him by taking the knowledge he imparted on each of us and putting that knowledge into action to create a more just and equitable world.

And so we will.