Progress

Williams ’70: “Go the
Extra Mile”

Gordon Williams '70:
Why I VMI

3:49

Growing up in his home state of Illinois, Gordon Williams ’70 always knew he’d attend VMI. In his alumni-filled family, which included his father, an uncle who served on the VMI Board of Visitors while Williams was a cadet, and a brother in the Class of 1969, coming to the Institute was as natural as breathing.

Even with VMI in his DNA, though, Williams had to forge his own path and quite literally run his own race. He was a track athlete, and not just an ordinary one: Recruited during his rat year, Williams joined a group of track athletes mentored by the legendary coach Walter Cormack, for whom Cormack Hall is named, and soon thereafter, Williams decided to excel.

That commitment he made in the 1960s as a cadet carried through his entire business career; today, he derives great satisfaction from serving as a member of the Keydet Club Board of Governors and supporting track athletes through a scholarship that bears his name.

But in fall 1966, Williams was simply a physically fit cadet who’d run track and played football in high school. One day, Paul Bouis ’67, a captain on the track team, stopped at Williams’ room and invited him to try out for the team.

“Nobody stays the same in track and field: Either you get better, or you get worse,” Williams commented. “And so, I wanted to get better.”

To accomplish that goal, Williams trained harder than others on the team, climbing the steps in Foster Stadium 10 times when others might do six.

“So go the extra mile,” he counseled. “You actually had to teach yourself to go the extra mile. It’s there. You can get by, you can graduate, but if you really want to excel, go the extra mile.”

That extra mile approach paid off during his 2nd Class year when Williams set a new VMI record in the pole vault during a meet against archrival Virginia Tech and won the Southern Conference championship in that event. He also learned to throw the javelin and was second in the conference and third in the state.

Academics did not come as easily to Williams, especially with a major in chemistry, but he persevered in the classroom as he did in the fieldhouse. After graduation, he discovered that a degree from VMI alone can open doors.

Approximately 25 years ago, Williams was acting as a manufacturer’s representative, selling sound abatement and air pollution reduction equipment, when he visited a businessman in Buffalo, New York. The businessman had military décor in his office, and soon, a conversation ensued. When the man learned that Williams had gone to VMI, as had many of the officers the man had known in the Army, he gave Williams the Chicago-area contract on the spot.

Three people with arms around each other, smiling.

Gordon Williams ’70 (far left) and Paul Bouis ’67 (right) pose with Ahliyah Williams ’22, the latest recipient of Williams’ track and field scholarship.

This experience underscored a lesson that Williams had learned from his father, Luther Williams, VMI Class of 1937: Live honorably, and others will trust you to hold up your end of the bargain and do the right thing. When he was a child, Williams had overheard his father on the telephone one Sunday afternoon, sealing a multimillion-dollar deal with nothing but his word as his bond.

“My father was one of the most honorable individuals I’ve ever met,” said Williams. “If he would say something to you, he would always follow through.”

Even as a young alumnus, Williams knew the value of VMI, and he tried to give as much and as often as he could.

“It’s tough to write that check when you’re kind of scraping by,” he acknowledged. “But I tried to always give something back. As the years kind of flew by, I tried to increase that.”

Eventually, Williams sought to give back even more, and that’s when he established a scholarship for a track and field athlete. For Williams, it’s a way not only of giving back to a place that gave him so much but also a way of investing in young people and helping them achieve their full potential.

Luke Phillips ’17, who ranked as the No. 1 Army ROTC cadet in the nation during his 1st Class year, was a beneficiary of Williams’ scholarship, as was Ahliyah Williams ’22, a first-generation college student who qualified for the national track and field championships in her 1st Class year.

Williams delighted in seeing the latest recipient of his scholarship progress, and not only on the track. Over the course of her cadetship, Williams went from being on academic probation to wearing academic stars. Last month, she graduated with an English major and a psychology minor.

“I’ve gotten as much out of it as they do,” Gordon Williams stated. “Actually, I probably get more out of it. … There’s such a joy when you meet these athletes, and you talk to them, and they tell you what they’ve been doing and what their aspirations are. And it really gives you a good feeling.”

Williams has not been one to keep that joy to himself. At a recent reunion, he encouraged some brother rats to meet with a handful of today’s cadet-athletes. The alumni were so impressed, Williams recounted, that they decided to support the Williams scholarship as well.

Wherever he goes, Williams encounters people who recognize the VMI spider on his vehicle and know what it stands for: A commitment to honor and always doing the right thing. Supporting VMI, Williams believes, is a way of strengthening that legacy before it’s passed on to the next generation.

“I really owe it to the previous alumni that graduated before me,” he noted. “They have basically run their lives with honor. They’ve run their businesses with honor. They’ve contributed to not just their family, but they’ve contributed to the country, militarily, in all phases. And so, if you look at what the VMI alumni have done before you, they pave the way for you. And so, what am I trying to do? I’m trying to pave the way for the future.”

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    Christian Heilman Director of Digital Content

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