His widow, Mary Williams, keeps photos and items that rep-resent the 31-year career of the late retired Maj. Gen. Harvey Williams. (photo by Catrina Francis)
Late retired major general understood importance of being leader for future generations
Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part story series feature on the late retired Maj. Gen. Harvey D. Williams who passed away Aug. 7, 2020.
“The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it,” the late Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf said. For the late retired Maj. Gen. Harvey D. Williams, doing the right thing was always at the forefront of his mind.
When Williams left the Military District of Washington as a brigadier general, his next assignment was the commander of VII Corps Artillery in Augsburg, Germany, in 1978. Williams was responsible for all administrative, security and logistical support of several Army installations in the area. Little did he know his responsibilities would exceed beyond commanding troops.
“(The) tactical mission was exceedingly enjoyable and fulfilling, however, a disturbing discriminatory issue occurred in the Augsburg community,” Williams said in summary notes of his military service. “(Possibly) born out of a combination of weak economics and bias reports came to me that on Mondays American Soldiers of any race could go into the city to virtually anyplace of their choice. Tuesdays through (the) remainder of the week, Black Soldiers were not allowed in certain restaurants, bars and social facilities.
“It seemed that the local populace was sufficiently financially endowed to venture out in adequate numbers from Thursdays through the weekend. Consequently, most establishments resorted to a ‘members only’ screening out admittance policy.”
Mary Williams, the late general’s wife, said that after hearing about his policy, her husband decided to visit an establishment to see how he would be treated. His approach, she said, went a different way to fix what was going on.
“After hearing those complaints throughout the community, he decided that he was going to take his aide and his wife, his driver and his wife and they were going to go visit (an establishment),” explained Mrs. Williams. “They all dressed appropriately, (and) his aide and his wife went in first and then Williams started to go and they said he couldn’t go in. He wanted to know why not. His aide didn’t announce ‘I’m Gen. Williams’ aide,’ he just said they were there to have dinner.
“So his aide stopped to hear what was going on, they all knew about the plan, they all stopped. Williams’ (asked), ‘Why can’t I go in?’ They said, ‘Well you are not dressed appropriately’. The aide had on a sports jacket (and) tie. By this time the manager had recognized (Williams) through the papers and ran over and said, ‘Gen. Williams’ and they allowed him to then come in, but he said, ‘No that’s OK.’ With that, he and his crew left. He said, ‘If Blacks can’t come, no Soldier can come, and we will arrange for those Soldiers living off base busses to pick them up and take them to the commissary. He was going to make an economic impact on the community.”
In his notes on his military service, Williams said he adopted an “Off Limits” plan.
“I knew the ‘Off Limits’ plan I adopted would be politically charged so I simply advised (Lt. Gen. David) Ott, (the commanding general of VII Corps), that I had the requisite authority. I could handle it without sharing details, and respectfully declined in advance any assistance or involvement from his level and higher headquarters.”
In his notes, Williams added that he had an office call with Oberbergermeister and said if he didn’t reply within 48 hours of Williams making establishments off limits, that he would reach out to his public affairs officer to call a press conference with all the leading newspapers to be conducted on the lawn of his office building.
“Information leaked out and several reporters showed up early,” the general said. “Mayor Hans Brauer took aggressive action, the restaurant and other owners dropped their discriminatory admittance policy.”
Although Williams used his voice to implement change, his wife said his peers would sometimes question what he was doing and why.
“He would say, ‘It’s not just for me. If we keep letting stuff slide, we keep letting stuff slide and it gets to be OK.’ Williams wanted to do well for himself, but it wasn’t all about him,” she said.
“He would say he didn’t have the WIFM attitude — what’s in it for me,” explained his daughter Joyce Williams. “That wasn’t his approach. He would say, ‘It’s best to lead … you can bring more people forward if you are not in a leaky rowboat.’ That just prompted him to be his best and do his best, because I think (it) was always evident this is not just about me, this is about what happens after me.”
His daughter added that it was the team — her mom and dad — who took a stand and made things better, even if it was only an increment at a time.
“Some of my takeaways are my dad always had a way of making something a teachable moment when you didn’t realize it and helping you arrive at the right decision,” she said about her father.
Joyce Williams pointed out that her father was the same with Soldiers. She said he didn’t believe in yelling or embarrassing Soldiers. She said he would pull the person aside, one on one and say, “Let’s review, let’s think about what happened here, and that’s how I believe you affect change in the long term and not just through fear and intimidation. He would just keep prompting with questions.”
When Williams retired Oct. 31, 1982, his leadership didn’t end because he was no longer part of the active force. His wife said he continued to mentor officers and those who were on their way to becoming general officers through conferences. He stressed to them the importance of helping others and remembering those who would follow.
“The old general officers would gather around them and they would talk with them and have a two-hour session about growing up and expanding what you have to get more like you,” said Mrs. Williams.”
Even though the uniform was gone, the person who believed in helping others and implementing change remained.
Ken Washington, the director of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall’s Human resources, said Williams continued to visit the base.
“While I hadn’t seen Maj. Gen. Williams in recent years (2015 to present), he visited Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall frequently,” said Washington. “(He) enjoyed sharing his experiences as the commander and a member of the joint base community. He also noted how proud he was to see the installation evolve into the premier installation filled with so much American history, that he was honored to be a part of.
“It was a joy to be in his company. I observed him, on multiple occasions, admirably, walking around the installation so proudly, with a large smile on his face.”
When his wife thought about her husband’s career, she believed he was a Soldier ahead of his time.
“If he came along now, he would make a vast difference,” she said. “He made a difference where he was and who he was, but if he were a general right now just being promoted, I think the impact that he would have had would have been great.”
Although JBM-HH Commander Col. Kimberly Peeples never had an opportunity to meet Williams, she said he was a role model.
“I am humbled to follow in his footsteps,” said Peeples. “Met with personal, professional and social challenges, he rose above and demonstrated a life of perseverance and dignity and respect for all.”
Pentagram Editor Catrina Francis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Catrina Francis