Richard A. Williams, Rowan diversity officer, and mentor to many, dies at 75
He knew the greatness of a university was its people and culture, and he worked tirelessly to make its people diverse and its culture rich.
Richard A. Williams, 75, of Willingboro, a fierce advocate for diversity and inclusivity on college campuses, a longtime equal opportunity officer at Rowan University, and a mentor and friend to countless students, staff, faculty, and administrators, died Wednesday, Nov. 3, of complications from diabetes at Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly.
Unwelcomed at first by some who embraced a tradition of exclusion, Mr. Williams, starting in 1984, overcame obstacles and setbacks — and changed attitudes — as he propelled Black people, and others, at all levels to greater opportunity, expression, and influence at Rowan, formerly Glassboro State College.
For 24 years, as Rowan’s equal employment opportunity and affirmative action officer, Mr. Williams used his hearty laugh, steely determination, and professional acumen to monitor the school’s hiring procedures and help dozens of Black, Hispanic, and Asian educators join the Rowan faculty and staff.
Talkative, friendly, and accessible, Mr. Williams also immersed himself in groups and programs designed to support at-risk students and students of color. He coordinated mentoring projects, funded scholarships, and recruited students who added personal and scholarly viewpoints that otherwise would have been absent from the campus.
“He changed the culture of that institution,” said Herbert Douglas, the former director of Rowan’s Educational Opportunity Fund. “He had a strong personality, and he understood what needed to be done. His attitude was ‘We’re going to succeed here.’”
Julie Peterson, Rowan’s current director of student enrichment and family connections, said, “Things were different when he was here.”
Mr. Williams changed things largely by getting involved. Among other things, he joined the executive board of the Black Coalition, became an adviser to the Black Cultural League, participated in the Dr. Harley E. Flack student mentoring program, and chaired the Black History Month committee.
“He was instrumental in bringing people to Rowan,” said former colleague Julie Mallory, “and he was instrumental in keeping them there.”
Born Jan. 15, 1946, and raised in Trenton, Mr. Williams graduated from Trenton Central High School in 1963 and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Lincoln University in 1967 and a master’s degree in education and counseling from Trenton State College, now the College of New Jersey, in 1974.
He married Yvonne Lane Dyke in 1968, and they had sons Darren and Brian and daughter Gayle. His daughter died in 1991, and his wife died in 2013.
Mr. Williams worked first at Bloomfield College in North Jersey from 1971-78. There, he developed an educational opportunity fund, and a support system for students of color that included tutoring, financial aid, and counseling.
He became director of affirmative action at Southeastern Massachusetts University, now the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, in 1980, helped hire its first Black female in the business office, and produced the school’s first Black History Month celebration.
A longtime member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, Mr. Williams was the Burlington-Camden County chapter president from 2000-03. He was a founder of its annual African American Women Achievers Celebration and oversaw its annual HBCU tour that attracted hundreds of high school students.
“He liked to get on the phone with his frat brothers,” said his son Darren. “He would talk and laugh. Then he would hang up and be straight-laced and serious again.”
Mr. Williams served as a counselor in Rowan’s Educational Opportunity Fund program for a year before retiring in 2008. He filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against Rowan, alleging he was forced to retire after testifying against the university in a discrimination case. It was dismissed.
Away from work, Mr. Williams liked to play basketball and bowl. He wore stylish hats, puffed on cigars, and played tunes by Bobby Womack and Luther Vandross to unwind.
“He was down-to-earth, loved to talk, and didn’t ever forget a name,” Peterson said. “Making things better for people was in his DNA.”
In addition to his sons, Mr. Williams is survived by two granddaughters and other relatives.
A viewing is to be held at 11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 19, at the Church of the Good Shepherd, 110 Buckingham Dr., Willingboro, N.J. 08046. A service is to follow at 1 p.m. Interment is to be at Odd Fellows Cemetery in Burlington.