Tribute to John Carter Williams ’49 by James R. Bradley

Delivered by James R. Bradley, Professor of Classics, Emeritus, at the Memorial Service  for John Carter Williams ’49 on June 10, 2017, in the Trinity College Chapel

John Williams was not only the Hobart Professor of Classics at this college; he also was known and respected throughout Connecticut and the rest of New England as the sometime president of various classical associations and a champion of school Latin programs threatened with dissolution. I was privileged to be his colleague from 1970 until his retirement in 1992.

John began his education in the East Hartford and Hartford public schools and continued at this college, from which he graduated in 1949, with honors in classics, Phi Beta Kappa, and winner of the Goodwin Prize in Greek. He then went on to do his graduate work at Yale University and eventually received his doctoral degree, having written a dissertation titled “Patterns and Variation of Rhythm in Hesiod’s ‘Works and Days.’ ”

By that time, he was already teaching at Goucher College in Towson, Baltimore County, where he enjoyed a distinguished career of 14 years. After the death of his mentor at Trinity, James Notopoulos, he was invited to return to the college, where he taught Latin and Greek for 24 years.

Above all, John was an effective teacher. He once said, “If it is worth learning, it’s worth sharing with others,” and he traced his teaching career back to childhood playacting in the abandoned one-room schoolhouse across the road from the home in which he grew up. Legions of students, from classics majors to chemists, enjoyed his classes, whether in the original language or in translation, and many benefited from his counsel as adviser. 

But John also taught, along with Tony Macro and me and guest faculty, in a summer M.A. program here at Trinity that provided secondary school teachers the opportunity to further their education, and he was a regular faculty member in the Classical Association of New England Summer Institute at Dartmouth College. Later, even after retirement, he continued to teach Latin and Greek at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington and classics-in-translation in Trinity’s Academy of Lifelong Learning. In addition, he taught biblical literature to lay people in a ministry education and exploration program, sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. And, if truth be told, he was regularly called upon to lead book discussions for the retirement community in which he spent his last years.

I want to add the personal note that for a number of years John was also my neighbor, living with his family up the road in a big white house, which, when it was built around 1800, was likely the only one around. With him were his wife, JoAnn, to whom John was devoted (sadly, she predeceased him by eight years); son Carter, who was a whiz at repairing small motors (he later graduated to Volkswagens); and daughter Helen Ann, now Helen Ann Landgraf (also a teacher), who babysat our children. John named the house “Villa Paterna,” recalling the Sabine farm given to his beloved Horace by Maecenas, the confidant of the emperor Augustus and patron of the arts, as a place where he could rusticate and have leave to write poetry.

Fittingly, I hope, I would like to end this remembrance with a poem of Horace, Odes 1.4. In it the poet begins with a celebration of the arrival of spring; but, reflecting that spring is but one season in a cycle—and a cycle by which our life-span is measured, warns one Lucius Sestius, the dedicatee of the poem (and perhaps of the book), to be mindful of the inevitable consequences of our mortality.

John himself would not have accepted Horace’s pagan sentiments on life and death, but certainly he would have appreciated the poem. The translation is mine:

(Horace, Odes 1.4)

The harsh winter melts at the welcome turn of spring,

 as the west wind rises;                                   

and winches draw the ships down from dry dock.                              


No longer does the flock loll in the stable,

or the plowman by the fireside;

nor are the meadows white with hoar-frost.


Now Venus from Cythera leads her dancing bands

under a looming moon;

and the pretty Graces join in with the Nymphs—


and beat the ground in rhythmic step, while Vulcan all-afire

calls at the forges of the Cyclopes.


Now is the time to anoint our heads

and entwine them with myrtle,

or with the flowers the thawed earth produces.                      


Now is the proper time to sacrifice to Faunus in the leafy groves,

whether he prefers the offering of a lamb or a kid.


Pale Death, in his impartial advance,

strikes the huts of the poor

and the palaces of kings, my fortune-favored Sestius,


and life’s brief span forbids 

that you indulge in hope.                                                                           

Soon Night and the notorious Shades will be upon you;


and Pluto’s gloomy house, where once you go

you will never again take the lead in offering toasts:

nor will you admire Lycidas,

for whom the lads are now hot—

but soon enough all the young girls will warm.