Reese and Williams honored with Congressional Record

BY PUNEET SANDHU, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — U.S. Representative Kathy Castor hosted her annual Black History program to honor community leaders by recording their legacies into the Congressional Record at the U.S. Library of Congress. This year’s event at the Enoch Davis Center, 1111 18th Ave. S., St. Petersburg, honored Gwendolyn Reese and the late Lew Williams.

Pinellas County Urban League President & CEO Watson Haynes opened the ceremony thanking Castor for recognizing the hard work and dedication that Reese and Williams displayed in their communities. “We come here today to honor two people who have put themselves out in front to give up their family life, to give up all the selfish things that they could want to do, in order to serve this community.”

Castor explained that as a member of Congress, she has the ability to spotlight people from her district to other members of Congress across the country and do a bit of bragging.

“Here are my proud representatives from Florida,” Castor touted and she explained that by adding individuals to the Congressional Record, their legacies are officially etched in America’s history. “So that when people—maybe 100 years from now—look back on who the leaders of St. Petersburg, Pinellas County and the state of Florida were, they will see that it’s Gwen Reese and Lew Williams.”

Castor then recited the statement that she will deliver for placement in the Congressional Record in honor of Lew Williams. “I rise today to honor the life of a true champion of education, Lew Williams,” Castor began. “His 36 year career in public service and tireless efforts to improve the lives of children will be remembered forever. Born in Baker County, Ga., Mr. Williams grew up in poverty and knew education was his ticket to a better life.”

Castor recounted Williams’ academic achievements and the start of his career in education in 1970. Williams began as a social studies teacher at Dunedin Middle School, later becoming the principal at several Pinellas County schools. In 1987, he became the Director of School Operations and was soon promoted as an area superintendent for Pinellas County. After retiring in 2005, Williams was elected to the Pinellas County School Board in 2010.

“Although Mr. Williams was a soft-spoken man, when he spoke, people listened,” Castor continued. “In his tireless dedication to students he wanted not only to educate them through books, but to equip them with the life skills to succeed. He recognized the challengers that low-income and minority students faced and he worked tirelessly to build relationships and connect with children and their families. He constantly pushed to create opportunities for those students who some may have forgotten. Mr. Williams always seemed to have the pulse of the district’s needs and knew how to address them.”

During his career, Castor noted, Williams faced issues such as budget crises and bridging the racial and economic achievement gaps. Williams also sought to help those students who acted disruptively in school, finding ways to integrate rather than shun such children from the education system. Additionally, Williams started a program encouraging more African American students to take advanced level classes. As Williams was a major proponent for strong early childhood education, Pinellas Technical College opened the Lew Williams Center for Early Learning last August.

“His slogan was, ‘Keep the main thing the main thing,’” Castor said. “And that philosophy defines the approach of always putting children first, regardless of status and race. He passed away in December 2011, but his legacy will live on through the many students’ lives he has changed for the better.”

Williams is survived by his wife and two children. After Castor’s speech, his family members honored him, including his son Brandon.

”One thing my father said that stood out to me was … although you may walk with kings, never lose the common touch,” Brandon said. “And what that meant was no matter how successful you become, never forget the people that you walked with before you got to that high position.”

Castor asked Gwendolyn Reese to join her on stage while she recited her Congressional Record honor for her. “I rise today to honor a dedicated community leader and equal rights champion, Gwendolyn Reese of St. Petersburg, Florida,” Castor began. “Mrs. Reese was born in St. Petersburg and is a proud graduate of Gibbs High School as well as St. Petersburg Junior College. Mrs. Reese has dedicated her career to supporting initiatives that lift families.”

Reese began her career as a counselor for the Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting Services at the Tampa Bay Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). She was promoted to Director of Administrative Services at the YWCA and later served as coordinator for Healthy Start of Pinellas County and for The Midtown Health Council, where she focused on reducing infant mortality rates.

“Mrs. Reese’s unrelenting services led her to play an important role in numerous service organizations and projects across the Tampa Bay area,” Castor said.

Currently, she serves as the District Manager of the Professional Opportunities Program for Students, Inc., which provides career seminars, college tours, internships and community service projects to assist area high school students in exploring and experiencing different career paths.

Reese also organizes the Annual Stand Against Racism event and the Week Without Violence activities. These events bring attention to these very significant issues facing members of our community. She’s been an outspoken advocate for preserving the history of African Americans in the St. Petersburg community.

After being selected as the president of the African American Heritage Association (AAHA), the organization developed a historic walking trail through St. Petersburg neighborhoods to shed light on the African Americans who helped build and develop the city. She also worked with Gibbs High School students to collect African American oral histories.

“We truly appreciate all of your outstanding work,” Castor finished. “You’ve done so much to preserve and generate the history and contributions of African Americans, so it’s very appropriate that we lift you up to others as a fine example of what it means to love and serve your community.”

After Castor’s speech, Reese called upon her family members to stand and join her. She said she felt honored to be recognized during the same event as Williams, as the two had done some work together.

“Congresswoman Castor, this means more to me than you would ever know,” Reese said. “You have inspired me even in these difficult times to keep working for the sake of the common good and for that, I will be eternally thankful.”

Castor also honored several community members and her staff. Anthony Murphy addressed the crowd to speak about the Arts Conservatory for Teens and how the all-inclusive arts group helped him as a student and in his life. Murphy also performed artist Sam Cooke’s song “A Change is Gonna Come.”

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