Nov. 6, 2012
by Chris Weinman
As a teenager in Detroit, David Williams remembers spending every summer in the same place: summer school. Williams says his parents were tough on grades.
"Even if I got a `C,' I had to go to summer school," he explains. "And they knew I would get a `C.'"
Every year, that is, until Williams took a speech class in high school.
"I was up there speaking with all of my notecards, and I got a `D.'"
So back to summer school he went to re-take the class. Having already gone through it once, Williams decided against keeping notes with him during his talks. Instead, he says, "I tried to get connected to the subject. I went over stuff and planned it, but I would go up and talk from what I believed in. I was speaking from the point of feeling."
He got an "A" in the summer school course, and again when taking public speaking at Northern Michigan University. These days, whether speaking to Commodore staff members, student-athletes, boosters or recruits, the vice chancellor and athletics director rarely uses notes when speaking, and he is still receiving high marks.
"If you've had the opportunity to hear David speak, he does a really good job of expressing a story and connecting it with Vanderbilt, with the experience and his history," Head Football Coach James Franklin said.
Franklin has asked Williams to speak to recruits during many campus visits.
"It's impressive," Franklin added. "If you're a parent and you're looking to send your son to a place where he might have some role models and people to look up to that will inspire him and that you can respect as a parent, he can blow some people away from that standpoint."
Williams tries to make himself available to meet with any prospective student-athlete. Head Men's Tennis Coach Ian Duvenhage, who calls Williams "one of the great orators I've ever heard," gets his recruits in front of Williams whenever possible.
"The latest recruit that committed to us said that he didn't even get to meet the associate ADs at the other places he visited, never mind the athletic director," Duvenhage said. "It shows that this recruit matters to us from a departmental perspective rather than just to the coach involved."
Williams invests in these one-on-one opportunities in the same way he does large-scale speaking engagements, learning all he can about a subject in order to connect on a personal level. Before he met with Chris Yee, now a freshman on Duvenhage's squad, Williams read Yee's award-winning essay on Arthur Ashe. The pair discussed Ashe's legacy in-depth during their meeting.
"He's really, really good at talking to the kids, and he obviously likes it," Duvenhage said. "It sells not only our program, but our university, to these kids. It's sort of an ace that we have up our sleeves."
Part of Williams' ability to connect with prospective student-athletes and their families comes from his experience with his own family. Williams is the father of four children, three of whom have graduated college. His youngest son, Nicholas, is currently a high school senior being recruited to play soccer.
"I have a son now who's going through this, and I have kids before him that have gone through it," Williams said. "So I've gone through it from the parent's side. That is reassuring to many parents. We had a young man and his parents in here last week, and I actually showed them the picture of my kids and told them who did what and where they went to school."
His oldest daughter, Erika, is a grade school teacher in Detroit. David Williams III is an academic counselor at Michigan State University. Samantha recently graduated from Brown University, where she was a varsity swimmer.
"It's tough, leaving your kid," Williams said. "When I left my daughter at Brown and got on the plane, I cried all the way home. I thought, `Have I lost my mind? I just left my daughter in Providence, Rhode Island.' And I'd had two that had already gone through school. And you know what? It's gonna be worse next fall. So, I understand. I want them to know it'll be okay."
Having a personal connection to that experience gives Williams a unique perspective. And after serving as the university's general counsel for the past 12 years, Williams has a unique perspective on most every aspect of Vanderbilt.
"Someone will come in and say, `I want to go into engineering,' and I can talk about how our engineering faculty have some joint ventures with our medical faculty, and engineering undergrad students get to do research at the medical center," Williams said. "Or how the fastest growing major at this university--medicine, health and society--was started by one student in arts and science who walked into the dean's office and said, `this is what I want to do." So you can make your own major here, and here's how you go about it...."
Williams' connections around campus also have been a great asset to the National Commodore Club, especially his role among the general officers of the university.
"It's really valuable for us to have someone sitting at that leadership table every single week who has both the intellectual horsepower and the passion for the institution," Associate Vice Chancellor for University Advancement Jen Howe said. "This is a really ambitious, aggressive group that David has helped us access, and one of the things that [Executive Director of the National Commodore Club] Mark Carter and I have both appreciated, particularly in the last 10 months or so, is how well we've been able to work with all them."
The Recreation Center and Multipurpose Facility Expansion is the perfect example of how Williams' clout on campus has benefited athletics.
"That facility does not happen if he doesn't have good relationships with the other vice chancellors sitting around the table," Carter said. "Forget philanthropy, it doesn't happen without their support. The way they partnered with him, I don't know if that happens anywhere else."
After teaming up with the Provost and other vice chancellors to secure more than half of the funding for a project that will be useful to every facet of the university community, Williams had a big hand in helping the NCC lock down donations for the remaining $15 million.
"When you have a project that has so many different layers of engagement and impacts the entire Vanderbilt community, it's extraordinarily valuable for us to have David be able to discuss it from every angle," Howe said. "With this donor, you talk about it in the way that it impacts student-athletes, because that's their passion; over here you may talk about how it will impact Coach Franklin directly."
Williams sees the projects' far-reaching benefits as one of the main reasons that funding came through in such a short amount of time.
"From the day we decided to do it until the day we break ground will be less than a year, and that just doesn't take place much," he said. "It was difficult because we were trying to do something that generally takes a longer period of time in a short period of time. It was easy in the sense that there were certain people that were interested in that project because of the multi-use facet of it. It was bigger than just one thing, and they saw it as an opportunity where they could give to a passion that they have--maybe football, maybe athletics--but they would be helping a whole bunch of people."
Just like his meetings with prospective student-athletes, Williams does a wonderful job of relating to boosters and prospective donors. Both Carter and Howe have seen first-hand how Williams can express his vision for Vanderbilt athletics.
"Whether he's talking about the student, the coach, the facility [or] the mission of the university, he's in that moment," Howe said. "He paints the picture and you just have that feeling of him really taking great pride and ownership in that."
"I think what hits most every donor that he sits in front of is the passion that he has for the kids," Carter said. "That comes across so clearly."
Years after having to take that public speaking class, Williams' way with words is still paying dividends. And since Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos promoted Williams to a larger role in athletics this summer, the athletic department will certainly benefit as he is allowed to spend more time in and around the McGugin Center.
More time focused on athletics means Williams will become even more connected to the life-blood of the athletic department, the student-athletes, and for Jen Howe that is an exciting prospect moving forward.
"Watching him walk these halls, he now has the freedom to stop and actually talk to everyone," she said. "That's going to be huge for us in the future. Getting these students to get his contagious spirit about the whole place while they're here, that will be the `game-changer' for us 10 years from now. And the longer he is here, the better it will be for everyone involved."