President Connie Ledoux Book reflects on the life and legacy of Vice President Emerita Jo Watts Williams '55, who passed away Sept. 16, 2021.
No individual can personify the culture and values of a complex institution like a university. But Vice President Emerita Jo Watts Williams ’55 came as close as anyone could. Our community mourns her death on Sept. 16 and celebrates the gifts she gave us as a student, alumna, faculty member and administrator. I hope you will read about her remarkable life in this Fall 2021 issue of The Magazine of Elon (see page 20).
It is hard to fully appreciate the impact of this gifted leader who devoted 75 years to building and caring for our community, working alongside generations of people who came together under the banner of Elon.
Jo arrived as a student at Elon in 1945 with a passion for learning. She was l inspired by her childhood experience flipping through her older siblings’ Elon yearbooks and eagerly awaited her turn to enroll. “I do believe education is transformative,” Jo said in an interview just before her death. “I have seen it happen in so many families, including my own. All of my siblings, eight of us, attended college and neither of my parents were college educated, so I know from experience how transformative education can be.”
Jo was a contemporary of many whose family lines reached back to Elon’s founders. She carried forward memories of those leaders — a living time capsule preserving the vision they had for educating future generations and building a great university. Ever the teacher, Jo made it her life’s work to promote the distinctive and timeless characteristics we strive to instill in every Elon graduate. I hope every student works to develop these qualities:
Jo began conversations with a warm greeting and a question. I first met her on the sidewalk outside of Mooney Building when she stopped me by asking, “Hello, aren’t you a new faculty member here?” Jo wanted to know my life story – her style of leadership included asking questions that set the stage for learning.
Several years later, she asked, “Connie, are you becoming a department chair?” And then, “I was a chair in the ’70s and I made a commitment to never give bad news over the phone. Go talk to people, Connie.”
Her curiosity was insatiable, and she epitomized the concept of lifelong learning. “How does that work?”, “Who’s involved?”, “What are the roadblocks?”, and always, “How can we get this done and how can I help?” We want this kind of hunger for knowledge to be a hallmark of all Elon students.
Up front, Jo always wanted to know, “How is your family?” She deeply understood the power of human relationships and had an incredible capacity for remembering social networks and connections within the Elon community. Her compassion was genuine and deep because she knew that growth happens best when we feel safe and valued.
Jo had a way of making each person feel like they had a special relationship with her. She was on your side and believed in you. And when Jo believed in you — when she loved you in such a powerful way — she made you better and gave you the spirit to become more than you imagined.
We want to support this kind of mentoring relationship for every member of the Elon community.
Humble and hardworking
Many people don’t realize it took Jo 10 years to graduate from Elon. She had to take a job working for President Leon Smith to finance her part-time studies. After graduation, she began work as a teacher while raising her family and continuing her studies to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate in education.
When President J. Earl Danieley recruited her to return to Elon as a faculty member, her leadership advanced academic programs and later the college’s fundraising, alumni relations and public relations programs. Her work ethic was unmatched, and she never stopped looking for ways to advance Elon. Those who worked with Jo learned that hard and humble work leads to success. That belief is ingrained in our community culture.
Committed to excellence
To was always dressed perfectly, and you never saw her with a hair out of place. Her style was that of a classic Southern lady. It was an outward expression of her commitment to the highest standards of professionalism. For Jo, there was no cutting corners or “good enough.” She had too much respect for everyone around her and for the institution to compromise on quality.
Those high standards were contagious. You can see the evidence everywhere at Elon, from the excellence of academic programs and the commitment to student care and success to the well-maintained beauty of our campus.
Ready to embrace change
Jo put it simply as she reflected on her life: “I was never intimidated by change. In fact, I looked forward to change and newness.” She knew what Elon could become and saw every innovation as a step toward reaching that goal.
“I always knew Elon would be a great institution because it was founded in 1889 as a co-ed institution, and at that time that was most unusual. Somehow I just knew that Elon would receive national recognition. I am just so thankful that have lived long enough to see that happen.”
I am honored to have had To Watts Williams in my life. It is no exaggeration to say that everyone who has spent time at Elon has felt her influence, whether or not they ever had the pleasure of meeting her. She loved in a way that made us all better and we love her for that confidence. It is up to us to live to be the people she knew we can be — the people of Elon.
Connie Ledoux Book