In many respects, Emory Williams’ time in Atlanta changed his life.
His education at Emory University in the 1920s and ’30s, and the job he got in an Atlanta Sears Roebuck & Co. warehouse in 1933, shaped his next 80 years, his daughter said.
“He really had quite an extraordinary life,” Nelle Temple Brown said of her father.
Former treasurer and chief financial officer of Sears and former chairman and chief executive of Sears Bank and Trust Co., Williams was an educator at heart. Had he not graduated from Emory at the depth of the Great Depression, he might have been an English professor, his daughter said.
“But going to graduate school wasn’t the thing to do when he had to help support his family,” she said. “So he went to work.”
Despite being a businessman, Williams still found a way to influence young minds and shape education. At Emory he endowed a major teaching award in the 1970s, helped develop a humanities-heavy curriculum — implemented in 2012 — and sponsored a lecture series for undergraduates.
“He not only had a passion for learning, but he had a passion for good teaching,” Brown said. “He felt quality undergraduate teaching was the heart of a university.”
Emory Williams Jr. died Feb. 11 in Hobe Sound, Fla., where he and his wife had a home. He was 102 and had “no ailment other than extreme age,” according to his family. A memorial service was held Saturday in Hobe Sound. Cremation arrangements were handled by Yates Funeral Home & Crematory, Fort Pierce, Fla.
Williams, who spent much of his professional career in Chicago, came to Emory from Quitman, Miss., about 20 miles from the Alabama state line. While in Atlanta before he joined the Army and served during World War II, Williams met and married an Atlanta native, the former Janet Allcorn.
The Williams family made a home in Atlanta until Emory Williams was given the opportunity to run Sears’ Brazilian operation in the late 1950s, his daughter said. Even after Williams’ career took him to Chicago, Emory University was never far from his heart. Williams began serving as a trustee of the university in 1964 and was elected trustee emeritus in 1981, according to the school.
He made frequent trips to Emory, particularly in the past three or four years, and was interested in the details of the university’s undergraduate curriculum.
Patrick Allitt, a history professor at Emory, said Williams did far more than make monetary gifts to the university; he was an active participant in the process.
“He had an exceptional degree of interest in education,” Allitt said. “He would come to classes, attend lectures, and ask some of the most probing questions, and this was when he was 99 and 100 years old.”
Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics and history at Emory, said Williams wasn’t shy about reaching out to faculty.
“He called me out of the blue on a Sunday afternoon about four years ago,” Klehr said. “He was fascinated by knowledge and education, and he was really quite intense about it.”
Allitt and Klehr, both recipients of the teaching award named for Williams, said the trustee’s interest in the university was unparalleled.
“I can’t think of an Emory alum who has done more,” Allitt said.
“He was exceptional in that regard,” Klehr said.
In addition to his wife of 71 years and his daughter, Williams is survived by four other children, Bliss Browne and Carol Schroeder, both of Hobe Sound, Janet Harrison of Dallas and Emory Williams III of Beijing, China; 15 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
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