Jimmy Williams led, advised institutions ‘that Atlanta is built on’

Business titan, who died at 90, wielded outsize influence but was never one for the spotlight
In his prime, James B. "Jimmy" Williams was hugely influential in the worlds of Atlanta business and philanthropy. He died this week at age 90. (Photo courtesy of the Williams family)

Credit: cus

Credit: cus

In his prime, James B. "Jimmy" Williams was hugely influential in the worlds of Atlanta business and philanthropy. He died this week at age 90. (Photo courtesy of the Williams family)

They came to mourn a giant of Atlanta business and philanthropy, while also bidding farewell to the kind of world in which a person of wisdom and integrity could stand so tall.

James B. “Jimmy” Williams, who died Tuesday at 90, was memorialized Friday at the Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church as the smartest man in virtually every room, a crucial voice in changing the region for the better and the kind of person who never claimed to be either.

“You had to find out that your dad was kind of a big deal from other people,” said Senior Associate Pastor Chuck Roberts of Peachtree Church, citing a conversation with Williams’ son. “You never got it from him.”

Williams led or advised some of the most influential organizations in Atlanta. He was chairman and CEO of Georgia’s biggest bank, and served as a director of Coca-Cola and other major companies. He chaired the board of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, the nonprofit that supports health care, the arts and the economic vitality of Georgia, and in that role helped orchestrate a deal to save the then-financially struggling Grady Memorial Hospital.

Because he has been out of the public spotlight for years — and never sought it, even in his prime — many Atlantans have no idea who Williams was and how much of an impact he had, A.J. Robinson, president and CEO of Central Atlanta Progress, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“I would rank him as — if not the most influential businessperson, then one of the top five of the past 75 years,” Robinson said. “Those institutions he worked with, those are the institutions that Atlanta is built on.”

On the sidewalks outside the church under a grey sky seemingly ready at any moment to weep, testament to Williams’ character came in memories from those who were peers among the executive elite, but also those who were his employees, assistants or even the children of Williams’ friends.

“What a gracious person, what a gentleman,” said Judi Fyola, who worked at the Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University when Williams was on the philanthropy’s board of directors.

Jack Glass, who worked for four decades at SunTrust, said he made business trips often with Williams. With arrogant or overbearing peers, Williams was diplomatic, but not indulgent.

“He would just say, ‘Thank you very much and move on,’” Glass said.

But in everyday encounters, he was genial, good-natured and open.

“He had a knack,” Glass said. “He’d get on a crowded elevator, speak to everybody, and by the time everyone got off, they’d feel as if they’d always known him.”

James B. "Jimmy" Williams in 1998 as he left the role of chairman at SunTrust Bank. (DAVID TULIS/AJC Staff)

Credit: AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: AJC

John McAskill first met Williams when both were volunteers with the Boy Scouts and later worked “far down the org chart” from him in SunTrust Bank.

“He would have me come to his office to sit and talk for 30 minutes,” McAskill said. “He’d ask about scouting. He’d ask about my children.”

Cary Sheahan, who was board coordinator of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center when Williams was involved there, recalled him as unassuming, a person of power and influence who treated those he came across as equals.

“He was a lovely, generous, approachable and kind man,” she said. “He was just the greatest.”

David Pressly, a financial adviser, said he had been a teenager when he met Williams through his grandfather, who had befriended Williams early in his time in Atlanta.

“I sat in his office when he was CEO of the bank when I was 15 and we just talked,” Pressly said. “He gave me time he didn’t need to. He was always special to me.”

No one on the scene today has a presence approaching that of Williams in his prime, Pressly said. “But the scene has changed, too. Everything is so corporate. I don’t think he could do now what he did then.”

Williams, born in Sewanee, Tennessee, came to Atlanta from Chattanooga, where he had graduated from the the McCallie School. He attended Emory University on a scholarship, working his way through school and was elected to the prestigious honor society Phi Beta Kappa.

He rose through the ranks of what became SunTrust Banks before becoming its president, CEO and chairman of SunTrust in 1991. He served on the boards of numerous companies, including Coca-Cola, Genuine Parts, Rollins Inc., Georgia-Pacific Corp. and the Sea Island Co. and had also been a trustee of Emory University, the Westminster Schools and Berry College.

Decades ago, when Williams had his hands on all the various levers, it was a time when a handful of men could gather in a room and hash out policies that would turn the city and its business community in one direction or another, Robinson said.

Williams’ generation included the likes of John Portman, Charlie Loudermilk, Brad Currey, Ben Johnson, Ted Turner, Roberto Goizueta, Bernie Marcus, Arthur Blank and Tom Cousins, Robinson said.

Few are alive, fewer still are active.

“Atlanta has changed dramatically,” Robinson said. “It’s much bigger and much more fragmented. I can’t think of anybody who serves in such high-profile, high-impact organizations like Jimmy did.”

While Williams had shunned accolades and awards through most of his life, the church farewell was intended otherwise to meet his specifications, Senior Pastor Richard Kannwischer of Peachtree Church told those in the pews.

Before his death, Williams had given instructions for his funeral, guidelines that focused on brevity, he said. “No meeting with Jimmy Williams lasted more than 30 minutes. I promise you, if this lasts more than an hour, there will be eternal consequences.”

Behind Kannwischer, the casket lay, flanked by large displays of bright, white flowers, backed by six electric candles.

The attendees joined in the recitation of the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. Kannwischer read from the 90th Psalm, then a passage from the apostle Paul.

Kannwischer said Williams’ character was, in a sense, a chastisement — but also a role model. It was not just the influence wielded by Williams that contrasts to the current constellation of company and community leaders, Kannwischer said.

“Because of his upbringing, because experience is such a powerful teacher, there was not an entitlement bone in Jimmy’s body,” he said. “In an age when words are cheap and when promises are disposable … Jimmy was that rare kind of leader who knew that at the end of the day, there was only one judge. The only calling was to do what was right.”

James B. "Jimmy" Williams, when he was a Boy Scout. Williams died Tuesday, Jan. 23. (Photo: courtesy of Williams family)

Credit: cust

icon to expand image

Credit: cust

About the Author