Williams a man of expansive horizons

CONWAY— George Williams’ father wanted his son to be a Baptist preacher. Williams, on the other hand, aspired to a career in law. God must have had other plans, however, because Williams’ life has taken some turns that neither man could have anticipated.

Williams was born to a devout Baptist family in Florence, the fourth of six children, when segregation of races was both law and custom. He graduated from Wilson High School, the same school his parents attended.

When Williams was 13, a bird-hunting adventure with friends changed the course of his life forever. The young hunters were armed with BB guns, and one boy accidentally shot him in the right eye. He has been blind in that eye ever since.

His mother spoke prophetic words of wisdom when she told him, “You can’t work like other boys. You can’t play sports like other boys” because he would risk losing his one good eye. She said he would have to work with his brain. Williams had always been curious about other cultures, and he became an avid reader.

As a teen, Williams worked for a white Catholic family. He describes this experience as a time of expanding horizons.

“My mind was transformed by the time I was a young man,” he said.

He began eating different foods, started playing golf, and discovered spiritual comfort in Catholic worship.

Williams’ father took it hard when his son confided his discomfort with the way Baptists worshiped, while his mother was just grateful he was still attending church. Williams converted to Catholicism while in high school.

Williams was the first member of his family to finish college. He paid his own way through South Carolina State College, historically a black college, by working at beach resorts. He has fond memories of working at a Jewish hotel and living with the integrated student staff in their dormitory. Everybody helped each other with homework and then picnicked together on kosher sausages at the beach.

Williams met Jean McKiever, a home economics major who was one year behind him, while singing in the college choir. The home economics majors practiced cooking for their boyfriends, so he ate well. While other students ate Sunday supper from a sack, Jean served him hot meals with all the trimmings.

Williams joined ROTC with the plan of becoming a commissioned officer after graduation. He was deferred because of his eye. He could not afford to go to law school, so he went to work for an insurance company in Augusta.

He was eventually promoted to assistant manager and sent to Birmingham. He describes living in 1950s Birmingham — a place of racial hostility and Ku Klux Klan activity — as the worst experience of his life. He told his employer he would not stay there, and he was transferred to Orlando.

In the meantime, Jean graduated from college and started teaching in Marion. Jean and George were married on Dec. 22, 1954, at St. Andrew’s in Myrtle Beach. They lived apart the first six months of their marriage until the school year ended and Jean was free to move to Orlando.

Williams’ life took an unexpected turn in the mid-1950s. Jean and the wife of the principal of Chestnut High School (in North Myrtle Beach) were good friends. The principal needed to hire a history and economics teacher on short notice, and Williams was offered the job on the strength of his pre-law degree and business background.

Jean’s family owned a funeral home in Conway. Not long after their marriage, her father asked Williams to work in the family business because diabetes was robbing him of his vision. Williams asked his mother for advice.

She told him “Whenever God puts us together, we don’t know how it’s going to turn out … but there’s always a reason.”

He agreed to help his father-in-law and worked two jobs until he retired from teaching.

By 1960, Williams was teaching history and government at Whittemore High School, a black high school in Conway. In 1967, he became the first black teacher at Conway High School, a white high school. He split his teaching days with Evelyn Snyder, a white teacher. Each worked half a day at Whittemore High School and half a day at Conway High School. The two schools were fully integrated in 1970.

Williams returned to South Carolina State for a master’s degree in administration and was subsequently promoted to assistant principal at Conway High School. He was the first black educator to achieve this rank in Horry County.

In 1974, he was offered a position as principal of a middle school in North Myrtle Beach, again a first for Horry County. Six weeks later, he was assigned to North Myrtle Beach High School.

Williams was concerned about the lack of structure and discipline at the school and attacked the problem head on. He hired new teachers and established the first junior Navy ROTC program in the district with help from Congressmen Fritz Hollings and John Jenrette. It proved to be a good move and soon attracted the best students. He remained at North Myrtle Beach High School until he retired.

Williams has not spent his retirement resting on his laurels. He is an active parishioner at St. James in Conway and has served on the board of Horry-Georgetown Technical College and the school board for the Diocese of Charleston. The president of Coastal Carolina University recruited him to serve as director of minority students, and former Gov. Jim Hodges asked him to serve on the university’s board.

Williams lost his wife of 47 years last August. He has four children and three grandchildren. Daughter Sandra Brown and son George Jr. are funeral directors in the family business. Daughter Karen Beaty lives in Loris, and son Charles in Atlanta. Jean raised their children faithfully as Catholics even though she remained a Methodist her entire life.