Making connections and staying connected is what Dr. Gerald Williamson is about.
Williamson, who has worn many and various hats during his 38-year stay on the East Central University campus, was inducted into the Oklahoma Higher Education Heritage Society Hall of Fame on Oct. 24, at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
“Dr. Williamson has been and still is a vibrant part of the success of this university,” said ECU President John R. Hargrave. “He goes way beyond anyone’s imagination to make connections and maintain those relationships with alumni and friends of ECU for a lifetime.”
Williamson is the first inductee to come out of student services.
Also inducted was ECU alumnus and former Oklahoma Gov. George Nigh, along with 10 other higher education legends.
It’s not uncommon for Williamson, who is now advancement officer for the ECU Foundation, Inc., to frequently write a note or letter, make a call or send an email to an ECU alum in his current position as advancement professional for the ECU Foundation, Inc., a job he has held with the university since 2006.
Besides coining the campus phrase “Once a Tiger, Always a Tiger,” Williamson’s impact on ECU and his love for the university is extraordinarily evident.
“It’s a well-deserved honor. He is probably one of the most special individuals I’ve ever met,” said ECU alumnus and Duke University Assistant Professor Courtney Karner. “I was able to write a letter of support (for his induction) and was happy to do it. I never met anyone like him. I talk to him on a weekly basis. He’s very unique in that he cares about you as a person. He cares more about you as a person than as a student or just a number. He’s a national treasure.”
It began in 1978, when Williamson took the long journey from Ada to Ada. That is Ada, Ohio to Ada, Okla. (Ohio Northern to East Central University), where he joined the ECU faculty as a marketing instructor in the School of Business.
In addition to his teaching duties, Williamson figuratively stumbled into the position of men’s assistant basketball coach under legendary Tiger men’s head coach Wayne Cobb.
“The week before (start of practice), assistant Jim Wooldridge sent out a notice, wanting me to check grades on some basketball kids. He knew that I had coached at the collegiate level (at Ohio Northern),” Williamson said. “When I went down to pick up some tickets, I went in and talked to Wayne. The first day of practice I was on the floor.”
Williamson served as a volunteer assistant for seven years before stepping up into a new role as vice president for student services.
“Dr. (Stanley) Wagner ended up offering me the position and I took it in 1985,” said Williamson, who spent the mornings teaching and the afternoon in his vice president’s office.
He worked extra on Saturday mornings in his VP office and used the time to stay in touch with former students and players through writing a note or letter or by contacting them on the phone with a goal of making at least 15 contacts each Saturday.
“Carol Maxwell was our office manager and I remember her bringing her stenography notebook over and she asked ‘if there was anything you’re going to do that I’m not familiar with,” Williamson said. “If students want to see me, regardless of what I’m doing, bring them in. We’re going to be an open door office as much as possible. In fact, there was going to be one hour a day in which I would not return phone calls and there would be no meetings (to focus on the open door policy).”
It wasn’t just a matter of Williamson having an open door, part of his self-prescribed duties was to flow throughout the campus.
“I’m going to go where the students are going, whether it be in the cafeteria, intramural games or sitting in a classroom building,” said Williamson “I called that my missionary time. For 20-plus years, I did not miss a missionary time. I’ve gone to play practice, band practice…my philosophy is with education we’re in the opportunity business. We’re to provide students with the opportunity to do what they want to do with their education and help with what they need.”
According to Williamson, his desire was and is to not only see students obtain their degrees, but help them make (career) contacts and to help them get into entry-level positions.
As VP for student services, Williamson felt that making connections through networking is one part of the position while providing immediate support to students in a time of crisis is another. He remembers dealing with a water main break in a women’s residence hall, which led to setting up a schedule for shower times in the Kerr Center, a day before students were coming in for RUSH.
After ECU President Bill S. Cole retired in 2006, Williamson says he asked each of the next presidential candidates if they would consider letting him being involved in advancement and fundraising.
“I felt like I knew enough people and stayed in contact with enough people. Now I’m in the fundraising business,” Williamson said, describing the job as being in the advancement business on one side and fundraising on the other.
“Advancing the university and advancing programs are important,” said Williamson, who visited Karner in Durham, N.C. in May. Karner is a research faculty member in the Department of Orthopaedics Research at Duke University.
Williamson’s visit to North Carolina and Karner’s recent visit to ECU has possibly opened the door for ECU biology students to apply for postgraduate internship experiences.
Williamson remembers when Karner came on campus. Prior to that, the Daily Oklahoman had a run a piece on (high school) football scholar athletes.
“I looked at the scholar athletes who played football and picked a group of them who were undecided (on their college choice) and sent letters to them,” Williamson said. “I had three offensive linemen who had a 30 or above on their ACT (test). Courtney and the others came in for a basketball game. We sat them down and told them about the opportunity to play football and get an education.
“All three of them got up after we finished and went their separate ways, but Courtney was the one I followed out. We went in the stands and visited more. I told him that if he came here and did what he is capable of doing in the classroom, the opportunity will arise that you can’t imagine.”
Upon graduation from ECU, Karner underwent graduate training at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and did his postdoctoral training at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri.
He is now a research faculty member in the Department of Orthopaedics Research at Duke in Durham, N.C.
Another example of advancement was when Williamson recruited current dean of ECU’s Stonecipher School of Business, Wendell Godwin.
“Dr. (Duane) Anderson (interim president at the time) and I talked about it numerous times. We decided we needed to take a look at someone in industry,” Williamson said. “I called Wendell and met at a Denny’s on the east side of DFW Airport. I told him before we go in that you’ll promise me that you’ll hear me out.”
Over a glass of tea and lengthy conversation, Godwin went home and talked it over with his wife and then ultimately spent a whole day in Ada and riding around campus.
“He ended up being dean of the School of Business,” Williamson. “That is an example of advancement work that was not fundraising.”