Faculty Focus: Dr. George A. Williams, Jr.
In Miami, Fla., young George Williams delivered the morning announcements over the Miami Central Senior High School public address system for four years. George had decided, “I’m going to be a broadcast journalist.”
However, his high school guidance counselor told him he wasn’t cut out to be one. After reviewing the results from the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), the counselor said, “George, you’re more suited to be a bus driver or a custodian.”
He left her office devastated with the decision to begin working on a career driving a bus.
Two cousins told George to forget the counselor’s judgment and demanded that he apply to college. Months later, he enrolled at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla. There, a professor recognized a gift and offered him a scholarship on the spot if he would change his major to special education. It was Providence in action.
Although he was raised in a community where more than half the adult population did not complete high school, George earned a Ph.D in Special Education from the University of New Mexico and today serves as the special education coordinator in the Education Department at Our Lady of the Lake University.
Even though he grew up in a violent neighborhood, Liberty City, George learned compassion: tending to the needs of a younger brother, Jeremiah, who was born blind and with cerebral palsy.
While pursuing his master’s degree at the University of South Florida, he taught 10 fifth grade boys who were behaviorally challenged at Sulphur Springs Elementary in Tampa, Fla. After school, he took off his “good shoes” and walked each of his students home. Often, he was invited inside for a cup of coffee or slice of pie. “I was able to have real conversations with parents about their kids,” Dr. Williams says. “It was the most powerful experience.”
Once, he was called to the main office after a student became violent and non-compliant. As a security guard held a taser to a frightened and sobbing boy, a police helicopter circled overhead and patrolmen entered the school. During the chaos, George approached the troubled student and asked, “What do you need? Do you need a hug?” The boy replied, “yes,” and George was able to calm the boy, end the crisis and empty the school of police. After one year in the classroom, he was named Teacher of the Year.
The story gets better. One student in the fifth-grade class read on a second-grade level. “His name is Charlie Adams and he was a kid you didn’t want in your class,” Dr. Williams says. “When he came to school, you wanted to hide or get back in your car and go home. He was a tough kid. He had a lot of learning problems because his behavior interfered with his learning.
“Once I was able to connect with him and his family and establish a solid relationship, I was able to get him to focus on his academics. I found out that he just wanted to be able to read like others. His behavior improved greatly. I stay in touch with him. Although he was in my special ed class, he’s now finishing his degree in special education. I’m proud of Mr. Adams!”
The miracle behind Charlie Adams is a special needs brother in Florida. As the Williams’ boys grew up, George often took Jeremiah to the mall, to get a haircut or to grab a bite at an eatery. An unbreakable bond formed. George did not realize how prophetic the relationship was until he mentioned it to that professor at Bethune-Cookman.
“I treated Jeremiah like he was a normal kid,” Dr. Williams says. “I really found out at a very young age that having a disability does not interrupt your way of doing things in life. You may do things differently or have different methods of getting to a task, but having a disability should not interfere. And my brother taught me that at a very young age.”
At OLLU, Dr. Williams encourages his students to reach beyond the limitations others might have placed on them, and to discover, as he did, their calling as educators. He attempts to lead students along that path of discovery, as his professor did with him at Bethune-Cookman, and to prepare them for a life of service. One professor impacted his life. Dr. Williams, in turn, hopes to impact many.