BY JON WILSON
ST. PETERSBURG — As longtime educator Charley Williams has done, more community leaders – and just plain folks, for that matter – should write their memoirs.
Williams’ new book, “Overcoming the Odds,” opens a window on the best history – the kind in which a person’s life, and sometimes those of their family and friends, plays out against the backdrop of larger local, state, national and perhaps even global stories.
In Williams’ case, his road to success led through humble beginnings and the restrictive and destructive reality of Jim Crow custom and law. Williams let none of that stop him. He followed a personal credo: No excuses, find a way, which is also the book’s subtitle.
A launching party was held for the book earlier this month at the Carter G. Woodson Museum of African American History.
As the book jacket notes, Charley J. Williams Jr. was born to a single parent in rural Lake Jackson near Tallahassee. He grew up in Jacksonville, attending public schools there and graduating from New Stanton High School. He majored in Spanish at Florida A&M, with a minor in French, and went on to win a master’s degree in French Education at New York University.
Williams, whose students sometimes called him “Mr. Bonjour” in reference to his French classes, began his teaching career at Gibbs High School. Soon, the Gibbs French program earned district and statewide recognition.
When Pinellas County schools desegregated, school officials transferred Williams to Dixie Hollins, where a “Rebel” culture included flags, the song Dixie and other Confederate symbols. Tension ruled often. Williams said he was treated very well by the school’s staff, parents and students. Nonetheless, he reports encountering one or two stunning examples of old-time racism. His way of handling such slights, in addition to his calm demeanor in the face of tense situations, earned Williams another nickname: The Ice Man.
Williams’ leadership talent propelled him from the teaching he so loved to administrative positions. He served as dean of boys and assistant principal at Northeast High School and principal of Safety Harbor Middle School. He came back to Dixie Hollins as principal and later as principal at Northeast, where he still attends the school’s sports Hall of Fame banquets.
Readers certainly gain understanding of Williams’ career. But his book is more than a recitation of vocational highlights. His social growth and wooing of, love for and marriage to Frances Baldwin Helms, is a highlight. So is a tribute to the couple’s daughter, Nicole Solange “Nikkie” Williams, who passed away at the tragically young age of 33.
Insights into the man (rather than strictly the educator) abound, as do anecdotes about his experiences. For example, Williams failed first grade and barely passed on his second try. He quotes daughter Nikki: “Dang, Dad! Nobody fails first grade. All you do is color chickens!”
The talented educator loves sports cars, especially Triumphs.
He was pulled over for speeding while driving to Dixie Hollins during the school’s turbulent times. When the policemen learned Williams was bound for Dixie, he let the teacher off without a ticket.
Williams mentions several community figures in the book, adding to the local history flavor. There are also numerous photographs, which could have been improved with captions and identifications, although some are clear in context with the text.
The book is a valuable contribution both to a family’s story and to local history. Here’s hoping more like it emerge.
If you’d like to meet Charley Williams and pick up a signed copy of his book, please join him Mon., Aug. 18 from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, 2240 9th Ave. S., St Petersburg.