Tribute to John Carter Williams ’49 by A. D. Macro

Delivered by A. D. Macro, Hobart Professor of Classics Emeritus, at the Memorial Service  for John Carter Williams ’49 on June 10, 2017, in the Trinity College Chapel

We are here to remember and celebrate the life of John Carter Williams.

John was born into educated, established, and successful farming families, who traced their descent from the Pilgrims. His mother’s ancestors, the Carters, had settled in Berlin, Connecticut, his father’s in East Hartford, on Long Hill Street, at its northern border with South Windsor. Bishop Williams, for whom Williams Memorial on the Trinity College campus is named, was a relative.

I know these details because I conducted a series of interviews with John last year and the year before. The narratives are on file and accessible in the archives of the Wood Memorial Library & Museum on Main Street in South Windsor.

The Williams’ family farm and home were on Long Hill Street, East Hartford, and there John lived from his birth in 1927 until he entered Yale as a graduate student 25 years later. By the early 1920s, mixed farming (tobacco, vegetables and fruits, chickens, milking cows) had ceased to be economically viable, and the truck farming that took its place suffered the same fate at the advent of the Second World War. John remembered how, from a small child, he would join his grandmother, mother and father, and sister [three generations of the family] every day, to read aloud from the Bible and other works of great literature once the farming and household chores were finished and supper eaten.

He was surrounded by strong-minded, Congregational women who were involved in the suffragette movement and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In their ranks was his great aunt, Mary Loomis Williams, a single woman, who lived in the original farmhouse across the street. In the summer of 1897, after graduating from Wellesley, she had famously taken a bicycle tour of England, Scotland, and Wales with a close college friend, unchaperoned, spending nights staying in homes wherever they happened to be; she later took a degree from the Hartford Seminary. For perhaps 12 years, this formidable, learned lady received John every afternoon as he returned home from school, teaching him Latin, reading with him from the classical works of literature, and teaching him to play the piano. She was a tremendous influence on him, he said, instilling in him a love of literature and music; he adored her. Yet his father, Burnham Williams, a laconic man among the ladies and not a churchgoer (John described him as a naturalist), also was a reliable, supportive presence in his life. He became warden of the Connecticut State Prison, first in Wethersfield during the war, then in Somers.

After education in public schools in East Hartford and Wethersfield, John came to Trinity on a full scholarship as a day student and majored in classics. Required attendance at Chapel caused him to question his allegiance to Congregationalism, and after soul-searching he embraced the Episcopal Church, a shift that both parents received with equanimity. His piano lessons with his great-aunt had prepared him to take on the organ, a desire he had harbored for many years, and, under the direction of Clarence Watters here in this Chapel, he mastered the instrument and served as resident organist at St. John’s Episcopal Church, on Main Street in East Hartford, for 36 years.

Classical Greek and Roman literature, Christian religion, and music of the organ were the paramount intellectual pursuits in his life. This afternoon’s concert recognizes and celebrates the latter; how his study and knowledge of Greek and Latin guided his approach toward interpreting and understanding Christian tenets, drawn from the Old and New Testaments, may be shown by my quoting a section from a sermon he gave at St. John’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford some years ago, after retiring from Trinity.

He argues that faith and belief are inadequate translations of the Greek word pistis and Latin fides, both of which properly mean trust. He continues: “Faith and belief are mushy, and fuzzy, nebulous and imprecise words, whereas the concept trust is concrete and powerful; it conveys the strength of conviction; therefore faith and belief should be replaced by trust, wherever they appear in either Testament.” He illustrates his case by means of a parable drawn from a personal experience in his childhood:

From the time I was a very little boy, every clement Sunday my father would take me on hikes in [the] … woods, summer and winter. He would point out all sorts of things in the beautiful world of nature—flora, fauna, the sky, the ways that each of these conveyed “messages” through their signs and how to read and interpret these signs. When these Sunday afternoon walks took place on my grandparents’ farm, we had to cross a brook before we could enter the woods. This brook was wide and in places almost three feet deep. … There was one spot where the banks of the brook were close enough that a grown person could leap across … but not a little boy. My father would pick me up under my armpits, swing me back and forth, and throw me across. It was scary the first few times, but after that it was exhilarating. I knew my father understood just the right amount of thrust it would take to throw me across. Then, however, came the day when he told me that I was big enough to leap across on my own. I was scared to death. I was sure I didn’t have enough strength or power to get myself over the water. Patiently and quietly, he showed me how to plant my feet, how to gauge the distance I needed to build up enough momentum, and how to breathe. Even though doubting my ability and my strength, I listened to his instructions. To my surprise, my trust in him was stronger than my doubt. Listening to his reassurances that I could make the leap, I DID IT! This is the way God is. He wants us to trust him. This, along with love, is what Jesus was trying to get across in his earthly ministry. God loves us. He created us. Love builds trust.

Those of you who heard the cadence of John’s voice, whether in lecture or conversation, will know that he was a born storyteller, and I think that it was his prime asset as the charismatic teacher he was to so many.

I first met him in early 1968 at a conference at Goucher College in Maryland, where he was running the Classics Department. He was married by then to JoAnn, with two young children, Carter and Helen Ann. As it happened, he was preparing to return home to Long Hill Street and to his alma mater, but now as a faculty member and chair of classics. I arrived here a year later, in 1969, and Jim Bradley in the following year, 1970. This young trio—well, relatively young trio—with John as leader for the first decade, promoted the discipline of classical philology in harmony for 22 years, until his retirement in 1992.

My wife, Ginny, and I will always remember the kindness and generosity with which he and JoAnn welcomed us to Trinity, putting us up in their house as we looked for a place to live. This was John’s nature. He made a point of welcoming anyone who approached him for advice, support, or just to have a talk; his office door at the college was always open. Conservatively dressed and courteous of manner, he was ever genial and considerate as he led his busy life in its varied theaters—though he was capable of outrage, and expressing it, if ever he found a clear example of injustice. He was informed by custom and tradition, but ready and open to change, if he thought it had value.

John was a good teacher, a good friend and colleague, and a good soul.