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UC's new president has extraordinary story to tell

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   He practiced basketball every day all summer long.  Gregory Williams badly wanted be a Muncie Central High School Bearcat. And for that, he was willing to do just about anything. So he'd play 10 to 12 hours a day. Even after football practices started, Williams would come home afterward and play basketball in the evening.

   "I learned that if you really want to do something you have to be totally committed out-of-your-mind to it," Williams says now.

   He had started his junior season on the varsity basketball team but was demoted around Christmas to the "B team." Williams was driven to make the varsity as a senior.

   As you read along in Williams' book, "Life on the Color Line," you're certain he will achieve his goal.

   And then all of a sudden - he doesn't.

   Williams was cut from the team.

   "That was a disappointing time," he says. "I learned that sports were not necessarily as fair as I thought they should be - because I don't know what went into that decision. I hope what went into it was could I contribute to the team (and) was I a good enough player to stay?"

   He wonders.

  

*

   You walk into the outer office of new University of Cincinnati President Gregory Howard Williams and you can't help but notice the walls. They are adorned with promotional posters of his best-selling book and photos and letters from dignitaries and celebrities - folks like President Clinton, Colin Powell, Tom Brokaw, James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall and the Prince of Asturias, heir apparent to the Spanish throne.

   There are more in Williams' office.

   UC's 27th president, who officially started on the job Nov. 1, brings more than a lifetime of academic achievements to his new position. He is an accomplished author who has appeared on "Oprah," "Good Morning America," "Larry King Live," "ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel," "Dateline NBC with Tom Brokaw" and National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross.

   He has traveled the world and counts Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, as a friend.

   When asked who he would want at his "ultimate dinner party," Williams mentions many of those people. But he starts with his father, who died at age 61.

   "I'd like to have my dad at the dinner table - sober," Williams says. "Actually, he did die sober. It was a great thing that he was able to move forward in his life. He was a great story teller and a guy of great wisdom and understanding."

   James "Buster" Williams was a driving force in his son's life. Buster was an alcoholic. He was often unemployed. He had more than his share of personal struggles. But he never lost sight of encouraging Gregory to succeed academically.

   "His message continued to drive me for many, many years," Williams says. "My dad had his problems but he was totally committed to me as well as he could be dealing with his own alcoholism. And he believed in me when not everyone believed in me.

      "I had high aspirations. I had high goals. My dad said, 'Greg you can be president one of these days.' It turns out he was right. I did turn out to be president of two great institutions."

 

*

   Williams started growing up in Virginia. In 1954, when he was 10 years old, his parents separated, his father lost his business and Buster Williams took his two sons to Muncie, Ind., where his family lived.

   It was on the bus ride to Muncie that Buster first told his children that they were part African-American and they were going to live with African-American relatives in an African-American neighborhood. Until then, Gregory Williams had been told his father was half Italian and believed he was white.

   "Life is going to be different from now on," Buster Williams said. "... People in Indiana will treat you differently."

   Suffice it to say, the next several years were filled with highs and lows that are described in the book in candid detail.

   Through it all, Gregory Williams never wavered in his goal to be a lawyer.
   "What I really learned is perseverance and to stay focused," he says.

   In his book, Williams refers to a conversation with his high school football coach who questioned him about dating white girls. In reality, it was the basketball coach who had that discussion with Williams.

   To this day, he does not know if that played a factor in his not making the basketball team as a senior.

   There were hard lessons learned in Muncie.

   "Realizing that it's not going to be a day at the beach," he says when asked what he learned most from being cut in sports. "If something's really worth doing, then you really have to deal with whatever adversity or obstacles might be in your way. Be able to walk from it saying, 'OK, maybe I wasn't successful, but I did the best that I could do.' There was never any question that I, as they say, left everything on the field."

   Oh, did we mention Williams was Muncie Central's starting quarterback?

*

   Whatever it takes.

   Williams graduated from Ball State University, earned a masters degree at the University of Maryland and a law degree, masters and Ph.D. at George Washington University.

   Whatever it takes.

   At the University of Iowa, he was a law professor, associate law dean and associate vice president of academic affairs. At Ohio State, he was dean of the law school. At City College of New York, he was president of the university.

   Whatever it takes.

   Williams has always had a special drive. His father was a great motivator and set high goals for his son. Miss Dora, a family friend, took in Gregory and his brother six months after they arrived in Muncie despite making just $25 a week as a maid.

   "She did everything she could for us," Williams says. "There would be days where I thought, Well, I've had enough; I'm going to give this up. Then I'd say, No, no. There are too many people who supported me, people that supported me during a time when there was a price to pay for being a friend of Greg Williams, people that I felt I just couldn't let down.
   "Athletics played a role, as well. It's one thing having that dream; it's another thing being able to kind of achieve that dream and figuring out what it is going to take.

   "A combination of all of those things created perseverance, that strong will, that desire to achieve, to be competitive and reach for those goals."

 

*

 

   Over the years, Williams says, he talked with many students about obstacles they were facing and he shared "bits and pieces" of his own story. Many of those students told him he should write a book. His wife, Sara, also encouraged him to tell his story.

   Well, not just his story.

   Williams was back in Muncie and asked friends and family there what they thought of the book.  

   "Greg,"  they said. "This is not your book. This is our book. You told our story. "

   "That's what I really wanted to do - tell the story of what it was like to grow up in a very racially divided community," Williams says. "But, of course, it's not just about racial division.  It's about overcoming obstacles. It's about living in a dysfunctional family. It's about dealing with poverty. It's about trying to survive. It's about trying to make sense of teen-age years.

   "I go back to Muncie at least once or twice a year. I see folks that I grew up with whose life didn't really turn out the way I thought it should have or they thought it should have. Doors of opportunity were closed to them. Some of them closed those doors themselves. I had two close friends I played football with die of acute alcoholism in their late 30s. But I've had others who simply things didn't happen for them.

   "People tell me they like the book. What that means for me is they like the stories that I told about the people that are close to me and they feel positive about them in the way that I tried to portray them in the book."

  

 

 

 

  

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