In Memoriam: Walter Lee Williams, Jr.

In Memoriam: Walter Lee Williams, Jr.
Walter Lee Williams, Jr., and his granddaughter Bella

June 25, 1936 to September 30, 2020

Jacksonville just lost one of its Renaissance men.

Walter Lee Williams, Jr. served as president of the Jacksonville City Council and board chairman of the JEA. He worked in real estate, insurance, and title and trust.

His civic activities included the West Duval Jaycees, the Rotary Club of West Jacksonville, and the Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) North Florida Council. He also was president of the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors (NEFAR). At age 84, he died in a boating accident.

Williams lived his whole life in Jacksonville. His talents in business, politics, and volunteerism qualified him as a Renaissance man, but he also helped usher in Jacksonville’s own Renaissance.

His son Tripp Williams thought his father’s greatest contribution was consolidation in 1968.

Walter Lee Williams, Jr., and his son, Tripp
Walter Lee Williams, Jr., and his son, Tripp

“Probably the most impactful and serious [legacy] was the work he did as a city councilman, consolidating the city government and county government,” he said. “That was a big deal. I think it got national attention, and it was a pretty progressive thing to do. It paid a lot of money to consolidate all the governments into one, and it just made everything more efficient.”

Williams served on the City Council from 1967 to 1970. He represented District 14, which encompassed several Westside neighborhoods including Riverside, Avondale, Ortega and Murray Hill. Williams was council president for a year during his tenure.

Attorney Doug Milne, a longtime friend of Williams, agreed with his son Tripp’s assessment.

“There were a number of people who were very active in that consolidation effort in a revised direction for Jacksonville. Walter, in my opinion anyway, was one of them,” said Milne. “He was young at that time, aggressive, bright, energetic, and pretty visionary, and he got involved in a lot of different things that were consistent with the new way Jacksonville was seeing itself…”

Williams’ daughter Monica Hentschel recalled her father’s popularity, as a result of his civic involvement.

“The thing I remember the most is that everybody loved him,” she said. “No matter where you went with him, someone always knew him, would always come up to him, always wanted to hug his neck.”

Ted Pappas, another friend of Williams, appreciated his sense of humor.

“He kidded around. He said he wasn’t looking for a deal; he was looking for a steal,” he said.

Milne said Williams even used humor to dispatch political opponents. “In one of his political campaigns, one of his opponents showed up at this political rally for Walter,” he said. “He spotted this guy in the crowd, and he did not show any apparent surprise or pause at all. A little bit later, he announced to the group when his next event was going to be. Then, he looked right straight at this guy and called him out by name and said ‘… and So-and-So, you’re welcome to come to that one, too.’  I got a kick out of that, as did everybody there. The opponent didn’t think it was so funny,” Milne said.

Hentschel said her father enjoyed helping out new colleagues.

“He was involved in everything for the City of Jacksonville, and I think if you talk to several people that now serve in government, they will tell you he mentored them,” she said.

Pappas said Williams helped him start his career. “I was a very young architect, and he gave me an opportunity. He was a real client, and he was well-connected,” Pappas said. “I designed two of his buildings and also his house.”

Hentschel remembered that her father used bribery as a parenting technique.

“I loved stuffed animals,” she said. “I had this old, really dirty stuffed animal that I wouldn’t get rid of, because it was my favorite, and so, in order to try and get me to give it away…he came home with this giant, pink elephant stuffed animal, and was like, ‘If you give up the dirty one, you can have this new one,’ and just like that, my old fave went down the hill.”

Tripp Williams recalled that his father could be unexpectedly generous.

“I went to school at Clemson University and got a degree in building science,” he said. “Once I got out of college, I got a job, and they laid me off after about a year and a half. It’s kind of the happiest day of my life, because I hated the job. I’d gone four years, he’d put me through college, and I just didn’t like it, you know.

“I was working for a construction company…It was going fine. They hired me, because I was the only one who knew how to use a computer, but I was just bored out of my mind. So, I went to him. I said, ‘Dad, I don’t really like this, and I don’t think I want to continue to try to do it,’ –and he was fine with it. He said, ‘All right, well, you just do whatever you got to do.’ I was expecting him to be super-angry, but he wasn’t. He was smart enough to know that people are going to do what they want to do, and you can’t force it.”

Milne said he first met Williams in the Rotary Club in the late 70s. He said Williams was a maverick and a great listener. “He was a different sort of fellow,” said Milne. “Marched to the beat of his own drum –by choice – but he could back it up…Walter was a real gentleman. He was courteous, he was polite, but he always listened. He had a way of looking at a fellow in the eye and keeping it fixed in your eye, and listening to what you had to say, and coming across as if he appreciated what you had to say.”

By Marcos Protheroe
Resident Community News

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