Lifelong Learner: 79-year-old ‘Mr. Bill’ Williams earning another degree from Durham Tech

person smiling at camera When prospective students call Durham Tech with questions about the enrollment process or advising, they likely have the pleasure of speaking to Bill Williams, or “Mr. Bill” as he is affectionately known on campus.

When the 79-year-old is not working in the College’s call center as a work-study student, he is attending classes in the Ingram Building where he is earning an Associate in Applied Science Degree in IT Service and Support – his second degree at Durham Tech and fourth in his lifetime.

Early mornings on the farm

Born on Valentine’s Day 1943, Williams grew up on his grandparents’ farm in Hoke County with his three siblings and cousins. After his father was killed in the Korean War, his mother built a house next to his grandparents so the family could be together.

“Life on the farm was tough. We woke up at 4 a.m. everyday, worked on the farm until 8:30 a.m. then walked a mile and a half to school,” he said. “Some days we’d get home from school and our neighbors were yelling that the pigs got out so we had to go chase them down and bring them back home. It was a real rural area, but beautiful, a precursor to the country clubs there now. I loved it.”

The summer before the eighth grade, Williams’ mother sent him and his siblings to Palmer Memorial Institute, an academically advanced boarding school in Sedalia, North Carolina – between Greensboro and Burlington – that served black students from rural areas of the state.

“I really loved it there. It had everything we needed. It was segregated, but I was there before demonstrations in Greensboro really started,” he said. “I thought it would be hard to be away from home, but once I got there, it was harder being away from school. My sister and I talk about that all the time now. We left home in the eighth grade and we really never came back.”

After graduating from Palmer, Williams enrolled in Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, where he was classmates with beloved Civil Rights Leader and former U.S. Congressman John Lewis.

“We took a biology class together and one day he came to class with his head bandaged. We asked him what happened, and explained that he went on a Freedom Bus ride, and that they pulled him off the bus and beat him. The bus was later set on fire. I always respected John from that day on as a great fighter for civil rights,” Williams said.

Williams majored in History and then got a job in sales in Minnesota shortly after graduating, but just three months into that job, he was notified that he would be drafted to the Vietnam War.

“When we lived close to Fort Bragg, you could see them transporting bodies. I knew it was more than a skirmish, people were really dying over there,” he said. “The only way you could be exempt was if you were in school so I applied and was accepted in North Carolina Central University’s Law School.”

Durham ‘Tech’ to the rescue

He graduated with a Juris Doctor degree in 1969, got married, and then moved to Raleigh where he managed properties for a few years before joining the American Airlines call center in Cary in 1988. Williams worked in Customer Relations and specifically with baggage claim.

“When technology emerged in the 1990’s, we didn’t know much about it so American Airlines sent us to Durham Tech to learn all about technology,” he said. “We learned everything from email to Microsoft Word and Excel. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to get an Associate Degree in Computer Systems. American gave us the time off to go to class and reimbursed us because they wanted us to learn everything we could about technology. Of everything I’ve done with my education, the most significant has been the technology I learned here at Durham Tech. It really made a lasting impact.”

Williams completed his first degree in 1998 when Dr. Phail Wynn was the president of Durham Tech.

“It was Phail that talked about the ‘notion for lifelong learning’ and I agree with him. Learning is a lifetime process because the world is constantly changing.”

- Bill Williams

Williams worked for American Airlines until the early-2000’s when layoffs began after 9/11. He later enrolled again at NC Central to become a certified teacher. He taught history, social studies, and technology to K-5th grade students at Durham Public Schools for the next 18 years.

“I loved it. My favorite part was seeing the light bulb go off when they finally understood something,” he said.

Advice he always instilled in their young minds: Don’t waste your time.

“I used to make my students create a spreadsheet with 24 lines and write in what they did every hour of every day. Most of them had at least eight hours they could not account for. I always told them don’t waste that time,” he said. “A lot of things you think you can’t get done, you actually can, you just have to push a little harder, wake up a little earlier, and get a jump on the day. It was a roadmap to teach them how to make better use of their time and also taught them how to use a spreadsheet.”

‘Sense of purpose’

Though he retired from teaching last year, Williams continues to make an impact on youth through his involvement at church. As an active member of Covenant Presbyterian Church’s Men’s Council, Williams is involved in INK (Invest-In-Kids) Ministry, a mentoring program to support boys in the Cornwallis Public Housing Community.

“It feels good to work with them because you feel like you’ve got some purpose now, which is especially important when you get older,” he said. “The technology I learn from Durham Tech, I pass along to the boys at Cornwallis. They see me and they say if I can do it, they can do it.”

Williams also encourages youth that have dropped out of school to go back.

“They eventually realize they can’t do anything without education,” he said. “That’s why Durham Tech is so golden. You can go back anytime, get a GED or enroll in a new program. You can come here for two years or less, get a degree or certificate, and make a good living.”

One year into his retirement, Williams got an itch to learn more technology so he enrolled at Durham Tech for a second time.

“When I retired I had plans to get a lot of things done. I finished all of them and thought, ‘what am I going to do now?’ I’m going to go get some more knowledge,” he said.

During the enrollment process, he learned about work-study positions and how you can get a part-time job at the College to help offset the cost of classes. When he saw a position in the Call Center, he jumped at the chance.

“Hey, I can do that!” he said. “I had all those years of experience in customer relations at American Airlines so I knew exactly what they needed. I’ve really enjoyed working here. I get to talk to such a wide representation of people every day. A lot of people call about the trades, line tech, welding, and I say, ‘We’ve got all those things!’”

Williams said being a student today is much different than being a student 20 years ago, but it’s nothing he can’t handle.

“It’s different if you’re older, but it’s not something you can’t learn to do. You can learn to do anything no matter what age you are,” he said.

When Williams completes his degree, he plans on using his knowledge to continue helping the boys at Cornwallis.

“I am hoping that with my knowledge, I can convince other kids that they can come to Durham Tech and learn this kind of stuff too,” he said. “When they are old enough to start working, the Men’s Council at church wants to start reaching out to employers to see what sort of jobs they are hiring and then help the young men apply online for the jobs. Some of them are intimidated by the online applications so we want to show them how to do it.”

Last semester, Williams ran into Student Services Dean Greg Bellamy on campus, who worked at Durham Tech when Williams was earning his first degree more than 20 years ago. At the time, Bellamy was trying to bring evening High School Equivalency courses to the residents of Oxford Manor in northern Durham.

“Bill was there working with residents as well. What struck me immediately, was that it was clear that Bill had a commitment not only to Oxford Manor residents but to the Durham community overall,” he said. “It was good seeing Bill back on campus this year. I was surprised, but in retrospect, I should have not been, remembering his commitment to helping others and his eagerness to always learn the latest technology, and to have the most up to day information, just so he can help others.”

Life lessons

Williams said his greatest accomplishment in life has been that he was able to pursue so many levels of education.

“I just love the whole learning process. I come from a long line of educators. My mother was a teacher and then a principal, and my cousin was a school superintendent. Education has really helped us as a family, we all benefited from it,” he said. “I believe in the system and the system says you need to be educated, particularly if you’re a person of color. You couldn’t move forward without it.”

He instilled this in his three children and three grandchildren, who carried the torch far and wide.

“One of my granddaughters is in computer science, the other is an aerospace engineer. Some people don't believe in the system, but when I see my granddaughters making good money right out of school and working from home – education pays,” he said.

Williams’ role model was his grandmother Clara who taught him one of life’s greatest lessons: To always share.

“She always told us, if you have been blessed and have more than you need, you should share the rest. When we had extra food in our garden we took it to our neighbors and friends in need. That’s how we operated,” he said. “That’s why I love taking the knowledge I learn from Durham Tech and sharing it with the boys at Cornwallis. You should always share.”

Williams is on track to graduate with his degree in 2024 and plans to continue making an impact on local youth.

“I tell the boys at Cornwallis all the time, ‘If you really don’t know what you want to do for a career, you may want to consider the community college. We have an excellent one right here in Durham,” he said. “I’m a champion for Durham Tech.”
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