Neil Williams, 76: Never found the time to retire

For more than 50 years, attorney and arts supporter Neil Williams dedicated himself to countless causes across metro Atlanta and in his home state of North Carolina. And at 76, he was still trying to get used to the idea of retirement, something he’d been testing since the late ’90s.

“He’d recently talked about the opportunity to think and reflect,” said Richard T. Griffiths, a friend who is a vice president and editorial director at CNN. “He’d lovingly restored an old house in North Georgia and created a place in an old outbuilding that was an office, and he talked about how thinking and reflecting had become so much more important to him over time.”

Fred Williams said there were so many things near and dear to his father’s heart, but he was trying to find a way to pull back from some of his responsibilities, yet still be involved.

“He’d be the first to admit that he failed retirement,” Fred Williams said of his father. “But he was thinking very clearly about how he wanted to continue to transition.”

L. Neil Williams died suddenly Sunday of a heart attack while in Winston-Salem, N.C. A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. Salem Funerals & Cremations, Winston-Salem, N.C., handled the cremation.

In the land of Georgia Bulldogs, Mr. Williams was a proud Duke Blue Devil, having received his undergraduate degree in history and his law degree from Duke University. And it was Duke business that took him to North Carolina over the weekend. In January 2011, he became the chair of the Duke Endowment, the Charlotte-based philanthropy connected to Duke.

At the time of his death Mr. Williams was also on the board of directors of Printpack Inc., Acuity Brands Inc. and Invesco Mortgage Capital Inc.

The Charlotte native was a former managing partner at the Atlanta law offices of Alston & Bird and was credited with growing the firm. When he joined what is now Alston & Bird in 1961, the predecessor firm had 12 lawyers. The 1983 merger of Alston, Miller & Gaines with Jones, Bird & Howell created the new firm, and Mr. Williams was made the first managing partner in 1984. He served in that role until 1996, when he stepped down and went back into full-time practice. He remained at the firm until 1999, when he went to Invesco, where he served as general counsel and later as the chairman of the board of directors.

While still at Alston & Bird, Mr. Williams served as chairman of the American Symphony Orchestra League and the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce’s Arts and Business Council, and as president of the Atlanta Symphony.

In 2001 he was elected to lead the Woodruff Arts Center’s board of trustees.

An instrumentalist and vocalist, Mr. Williams’ support of the arts was no accident, his son said.

“He was a musician by training,” Fred Williams said of his father. “And though he chose law as a career, he was still very connected to music and higher education, which he felt very strongly about.”

In addition to his son, Mr. Williams is survived by his wife of 54 years, Sue Williams; daughter, Susan Williams of Columbus, Ohio; and two grandchildren.

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