The Elon community remembers the life and legacy of Jo Watts Williams ’55, who dedicated 75 years to the university she loved.
Be nice to everyone, even when they’re not nice to you.
Don’t complain unless you have a solution to the problem.
Keep your mouth shut, and karma will take care of it later.
This, according to longtime friend Barry Bradberry ’75, was “The Gospel According to Jo Watts Williams.” It captures the qualities that the people who knew her best throughout her extraordinary life remember most fondly. Her genuine kindness. Her generosity of spirit. Her warm sense of humor. Her unique ability to forge deep connections with people, to make everyone in her orbit feel truly special.
“She embraced people with sincerity,” says Bradberry, Elon’s associate dean of admissions and special assistant to the vice president for enrollment. “Everyone wants to have an inspired leader, and she was truly a leader.”
A legendary educator and administrator, Williams died Sept. 16 at age 92 at her home in Burlington, North Carolina. She was a part of Elon University, her alma mater, for more than 75 years and contributed greatly to the quality of life in Alamance County through her extensive work in the community. After working as a public school teacher, Williams returned to Elon and made her mark in the classroom and the administration, ultimately rising through the ranks to vice president for development. She remained a devoted advocate for the university as vice president emerita, working to shape Elon’s future right up to her passing.
“Dr. Williams’ service to our university spanned five presidents — Jo has been the common thread through Elon’s growth,” President Connie Ledoux Book says. “At every moment in the life of the institution, Jo was there building community, warmly embracing each of us and sharing her endless love.” She adds, “Jo has also been a personal friend and mentor for me. I was proud and humbled to have her at my side the day I began my service as Elon’s ninth president. She has been a role model for intelligence, integrity, strength of character and always a spirit of warmth, grace and dignity. We are better people because we have known Jo Watts Williams. She embodies all that is good about the Elon community and we will forever celebrate her remarkable life.”
Williams’ legacy will continue to impact Elon for generations to come thanks to the generosity of her family, sons William “Lee” Williams III and his wife, Beth, through the Beth and Lee Williams Foundation, and Dr. Randall Williams and his wife, Elizabeth. Their $10 million gift to Elon — the largest endowment gift in the university’s history — will provide permanent funding for numerous scholarships and support for faculty, administration and the university’s community partnerships. And in July of this year, Elon’s board of trustees approved the naming of the Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education in recognition of her lifetime of distinguished service.
“I’ve been doing this work for over 30 years, and I’ve never been associated with a gift that more accurately aligns with a human being’s life than this one,” says Jim Piatt, vice president for university advancement. “It supports students; she was a student here. It supports faculty; she was a faculty member. It supports administration; she was an administrator here. It supports the community; she was one of the driving forces in Alamance County. There are these components that line up with the phases of her life. I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
A Natural Educator
Jo Watts was born on May 26, 1929, in the White Store community of Anson County, North Carolina, the youngest of eight children of James C. Watts and Blanche Rogers Watts. Neither of her parents had attended college, but they were committed to the importance of education. They raised money to hire a teacher for the town’s school and ensured that all of their children attended college.
Following her graduation from Deep Creek (N.C.) High School, Williams followed the path of all of her siblings, enrolling in then-Elon College in 1945. It was there she met fellow Elon student William Leaford Williams Jr., and the two were married on June 13, 1948. She combined her studies with work, serving as secretary to President Leon Edgar Smith for four years. She completed her bachelor’s degree in elementary education and graduated from Elon in 1955.
Following college, Williams spent 14 years as a public school teacher in North Carolina, working in Alamance County Schools, Concord City Schools and Burlington City Schools. She was a Teaching Fellow and earned her master’s degree in education in 1971 and a doctorate in 1973 from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
“The most exciting thing was when you could tell when a student understood what you were trying to teach. There was this glow about them,” Williams said in an interview after the announcement of her family’s gift to Elon. “I do believe education is transformative. I have seen it happen in so many families, including my own.”
In 1969, then-President J. Earl Danieley ’46 recruited Williams to accept a position on the Elon College faculty in the Department of Psychology and Education. She soon advanced from instructor to the rank of professor, and in 1977 was named associate dean of academic affairs and director of the Learning Resources Center. Two years later, President J. Fred Young appointed Williams director of development and soon promoted her to be Elon’s first vice president for development.
J. King White ’80 took several courses with Williams right before she transitioned from faculty member to administrator. “Those of us who took Jo’s classes realized right away she was fun, positive, warm and charming,” says White, who along with Bradberry and others became known as a “third son” to Williams over the years. “She knew what she was doing. She had a really easy way about her and her manner with students was really top-notch. I don’t know anybody who ever took a class from Jo Williams who didn’t rave about it.”
Though Bradberry never had Williams as a professor, he met her through a friend after transferring to Elon from Chowan University in 1973 and she quickly took him under her wing. She recommended him for a job in the Office of Admissions right after he graduated and later supervised his graduate school practicum. Bradberry credits Williams with imparting important life lessons in addition to serving as a mentor in his work. Her son Lee helped him get his first loan to buy a car and taught him financial literacy. And always known for her impeccable style,
Williams urged Bradberry to dress professionally.
“To this day, I don’t walk into Powell Building or Inman Admissions Welcome Center without a coat and tie on,” Bradberry says. “I was the first person hired out of Elon to go directly into admissions. She said, ‘You look too young. When you go into a high school, they’re going to ask for your hall pass.’ That’s why I dress the way I do.”
Blazing a Trail
Williams assumed the role of vice president for development at a time when it was rare for women to hold senior-level positions in higher education. She made strides toward changing that not only through her own work but also by hiring and supporting other women in administrative leadership roles at Elon. “I had a tremendous support system in the administration here. They took a big chance and were blazing a trail,” Williams said in a 2019 interview with The Magazine of Elon. “I used my energy trying to bring in capable women to serve in roles. I started hiring women and just kept bringing them in. I quietly and patiently kept plugging away.”
One of those women was Annette Orbert ’90, who Williams hired in 1983 to work as a data entry clerk in advancement. The position was being vacated by a Black woman, and Williams wanted another Black woman to fill the position and went out of her way to recruit Orbert, who was working at a bank at the time. “She took a big step,” Orbert says. “She was trying to maintain diversity in the office. She was really ahead of her time. She paved the way for women at Elon.”
Creating opportunities for others, especially other women, was important to Williams, and Orbert benefited greatly because of her mentorship and steady encouragement. Not long after she started as the data entry clerk, Williams told Orbert that she wanted her to take classes at lunchtime and at night at what was then Elon College. Orbert wanted to complete her undergraduate degree, but she was newly married. She wasn’t sure she could juggle work, marriage and classes. “I told her, ‘I don’t see how I can do it all,’” Orbert recalls. “She insisted that I could take a class at lunch and one at night. She really pushed me.”
Seven years later, Orbert earned her degree with Williams cheering her on and pushing her toward new opportunities in the financial aid office as a receptionist. “She wanted me to move up,” Orbert says, and she did. She was soon a financial aid counselor and eventually the director of minority recruiting in admissions, where she worked until 2005. Orbert earned a master’s degree from Wake Forest University in 2007 and is now the executive director of Alamance County Community Services Agency.
She was the best at sewing relationships, sewing different people’s personalities together to make
Elon successful. If it wasn’t for Jo, I don’t think Elon would be where it is now. — Teena Koury
As she advanced through her career, Orbert stayed in contact with Williams, who always made her feel special. “Whenever she talked with you, it felt like you were the only person she was focused on,” Orbert says. When she was still working for Williams, Orbert’s 8-year-old sister and her mother visited her at work one day. Williams insisted on meeting Orbert’s little sister. Instead of chatting with her from behind her big desk, Williams pulled out a chair and started asking the nervous youngster questions, quickly putting her at ease. “I was so impressed with that. She wanted everyone to feel comfortable,” Orbert says. “I think about that now. When I talk with people, I do it at a round table in my office. I don’t like the desk between us.”
Innovating University Advancement
In her 16 years as vice president for development, Williams provided administrative leadership, strong trustee and donor stewardship and crucial fundraising success that fueled the institution’s growth. She led four major Elon fundraising campaigns and secured the first $1 million gift for the college. She also initiated the college’s planned giving program and oversaw major gifts, annual giving, alumni and parent relations, church relations, foundation and corporate relations, and the publications and public information office. The Elon endowment grew from about $3 million in the 1970s to more than $23 million in 1995.
“The reason she was so successful in advancement is because she wasn’t one and done, write the check, I’ll see you later,” Bradberry says. “She really cared about people. She had true, deep friendships with people.”
That relationship-driven approach to university advancement is one of the reasons Williams hired White to be Elon’s director of alumni and parent relations right out of college. He recalls wearing shorts and a T-shirt after spending the day cheering on his fraternity brothers at a club lacrosse game when he went to her office in Powell at her request. He was student body vice president, and he thought she wanted to talk to him in that capacity. But after exchanging pleasantries, it became clear she wanted to talk to him about a job. “This was not the formal job interview I expected to be doing,” White says. “I was so embarrassed, and she was loving it because she put me on the spot.”
Williams wanted to innovate and re-energize the development office, including a renewed focus on forging strong connections with young alumni. She thought White, with his background in student government and his assured yet friendly demeanor with both staff and students, was the perfect person to cultivate those relationships. “That launched my working career, and it was because Jo Williams saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” White says.
White describes his work with Williams as “the best first job ever.” She was highly respected among her staff, and her charm masked an innate drive to succeed. She pushed her team to represent Elon in the best possible way, encouraging them with “the sheer power of her personality,” White says. When he wanted to pursue another job after five years at Elon, Williams was his biggest cheerleader and served as a reference. He carried the lessons she taught him with him throughout his career, and they remained close for life. “Jo’s warmth was apparent to each and every person she dealt with,” White says. “By her actions, she represented the epitome of Elon’s culture for hospitality.”
When Piatt began working at Elon in 2008, Williams was one of the first people he met. He regularly frequented her office during his first few months on the job, armed with a notepad as she shared her knowledge about university advancement and Elon in general. “I fully recognize that Jo created this job,” Piatt says. “I’m a steward of her legacy, so personally it’s an honor for me to be in a role like this, that I know was born during a time when it was more challenging, but it was born with great integrity, great vision and great wisdom.”
Piatt credits Williams with modernizing university advancement at Elon, implementing strategies that weren’t even on most other schools’ radars at the time. She oversaw the creation of Elon’s first call center, hired the first major gifts staff and established the Parents Council, among countless other initiatives. “I think some people struggle with how much this place changes, but Jo loved it all, much like President Danieley when he was alive,” Piatt says. “They saw the growth and change as evolutionary.”
A Force for Good
Williams was named special assistant to President Young in 1995, representing Elon in the Alamance-Burlington community and continuing her personal relationships with many donors and friends. In 2010 President Leo M. Lambert named Williams vice president emerita and she continued to be active in the life of the university and nurtured philanthropic relationships between generous families and Elon.
“Jo Watts Williams was among the most prominent architects of today’s Elon University. As a respected faculty member and a talented administrator, she strengthened every aspect of the university and touched the lives of thousands of students,” Lambert says. “As a leader in our wider community, she was a major contributor to the quality of life in Alamance County, helping to make possible the medical facilities and senior living communities that are enjoyed every day by thousands of people. She exemplified the value of civic engagement and the impact that one person can make in the lives of others. But most of all, she was a dear and true friend to me and countless others.”
Teena Koury, co-owner of Carolina Hosiery Mills and Alamance Industrial Park, can attest to that. As an Alamance County native, she first met Williams about 40 years ago through social gatherings and her family’s connection to Elon, and they remained friends. “I looked at Jo as a seamstress for Elon University,” says Koury, a fitting analogy that ties to her own textile heritage in the area. “She was the best at sewing relationships, sewing different people’s personalities together to make Elon successful. If it wasn’t for Jo, I don’t think Elon would be where it is now.”
Williams said her life had three priorities: her family, her university and her community. She leaves a legacy of leadership in Alamance County, serving as one of the driving forces in the complex merger of Memorial Hospital and Alamance County Hospital and the construction of Alamance Regional Medical Center (ARMC), which opened in 1996. She served on the Memorial Hospital Board and continued on the ARMC board. She was also instrumental in the construction of the former Memorial Hospital property of Alamance Extended Care, which includes the Village at Brookwood retirement community and Edgewood Place.
In addition, Williams served as a board member on multiple community organizations, including the Alamance County Chamber of Commerce, Alamance County Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army and Burlington Boys and Girls Club. She was also a trustee and ruling elder in First Presbyterian Church and was named Woman of the Year by the Burlington Civitan Club in 1982.
While these accomplishments are impressive enough, for Koury, Williams’ true legacy lives on through the countless people she touched. “She’s taught so many how to sew relationships,” she says. “Everyone else has learned her pattern for sewing, so it will carry on.”
There will always be an Elon, and now there will always be a School of Education at Elon because of this generous gift from my family. In addition to my family, Elon has been the greatest blessing of my life. — Jo Watts Williams ’55
At Williams’ memorial service, Vice President for Access and Success and Professor of Education Jean Rattigan-Rohr described an encounter with Williams at a gas station in downtown Burlington that encapsulated Williams’ impact on the community. “I quickly jumped out of the car to talk to Jo, to embrace and to catch up,” Rattigan-Rohr said. “But what was telling to me was that car after car as they pulled into that gas station, just about everybody stopped to say hello to Jo. I teased her and said, ‘You know, you should really have run for mayor.’”
Williams was named Elon’s Distinguished Alumna of the Year in 1995, was awarded the Elon Medallion for outstanding service to Elon in 1998 and received the Frank S. Holt Business Leadership Award in 2008. In 2013 the university named a residence hall in The Oaks neighborhood on campus in her honor, and her portrait hangs in a conference room that bears her name in the president’s office suite in Powell Building. In 2014 she was recognized by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory with the state’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine award.
Williams was a generous and consistent donor to Elon through more than five decades, supporting scholarships, academic programs, athletics and building projects. She was a member of the Elon Society, Phoenix Club and the Order of the Oak planned giving society, and she and her husband created the William L. and Jo Watts Williams Scholarship.
An Enduring Legacy
This summer, Williams’ sons ensured her legacy would live on thanks to a $10 million gift in her honor that will touch every facet of education at Elon. In recognition of this commitment, Elon’s board of trustees voted to name the Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education — a fitting tribute to a pioneer in education at Elon and beyond.“Her life’s work always focused on the power of education to transform lives,” says Ann Bullock, dean of the Watts Williams School of Education. “We are proud that her name will forever be associated with our school and the success of our students.”
Thanks to the school naming, Book says, generations of future students will learn about Williams’ positive spirit and legacy. “They will have an inspiring role model who demonstrated the impact a single, passionate individual can make in building a better world,” she adds.
The gift, which was made as part of the Elon LEADS Campaign, will create an endowment to support students, faculty, administration and the university’s community partnerships. The funds will be used in the following ways:
- Support for 10 annual recipients of the Dr. Jo Watts Williams Teaching Fellows, Elon’s most competitive and highest award for students desiring to pursue a career in teaching.
- Support for at least 10 annual recipients of the Dr. Jo Watts Williams Scholars award, who will participate in the partnership between the Alamance-Burlington School System (ABSS), Alamance Community College and Elon University. These students will be Alamance County residents who demonstrate financial need and, upon completion of the program, will go on to begin their careers in the ABSS schools.
- Support for the dean of the Watts Williams School of Education and the Dr. Jo Watts Williams Endowed Emerging Scholar, which will be granted on a rotating basis to education faculty members who are beginning their Elon teaching careers.
- Establish the Watts Williams Community Excellence Fund to provide support to Elon’s partnerships such as the Elon Academy, the “It Takes a Village” Project and Service Year programs.
- Support for 20 scholarships in Elon’s groundbreaking Odyssey Program, supporting full financial aid for students with exceptional potential and limited resources. Many students selected for the Odyssey Program are first-generation college students. Recipients will be known as the Dr. Jo Watts Williams Odyssey Scholars.
“My mother exemplifies all that is wonderful about the Elon community,” Williams’ son Lee says. “This gift will provide resources that will transform the lives of students who are fortunate enough to follow in her footsteps.”
In an interview following the announcement of the gift, Williams said it was “a lifelong privilege” to be affiliated with Elon. She dedicated most of her life and career to nurturing the university she called home, contributing significantly to its rise from a regional college to a nationally recognized university. Thanks to her family’s philanthropy, her impact will continue to resonate at Elon long after she is gone.
“Teaching was my love from the very beginning, and the fact that this gift will educate teachers at Elon makes it even more special,” Williams said after learning of the gift. “There will always be an Elon, and now there will always be a School of Education at Elon because of this generous gift from my family. In addition to my family, Elon has been the greatest blessing of my life.”
Roselee Papandrea Taylor G’21 and Keren Rivas ’04 G’21 contributed to this story.