Dean Wendy Perdue presents Clark Williams with the Clark Williams Distinguished Service Award
Photograph by Kim Lee Schmidt

A man of kindness

September 25, 2023

In Brief

Professor W. Clark Williams retired in May after more than four decades at Richmond Law. John Douglass, who served as dean during part of Williams’ tenure, spoke at his retirement party. Here’s a lightly edited excerpt of his remarks.

During Clark’s tenure, our law school has graduated 6,570 students with J.D. degrees. It’s no exaggeration to observe that most of the 6,570 were taught or counseled by Clark Williams. Clark’s door was always open to students. Those of us with offices near Clark’s can tell you there was a steady stream of students waiting for their turn. Despite their numbers, Clark had a way of making each student feel like the only law student in the world.

Clark is an empathetic listener. That hasn’t changed in 44 years. I spoke with a friend, a very successful Richmond lawyer, who entered UR Law in 1979 and was a student in Clark’s very first year teaching Civil Procedure. She did well through the semester and got an A on the midterm. Just before final exams she received word that her mother had been diagnosed with an untreatable cancer. She rushed through her exams, unable to concentrate. Before grades came out she received a note from Clark Williams, asking her to stop by his office.

When they met, he told her she had failed the exam. But, he added, he was reluctant to enter the grade without asking if something had happened to throw her off course. When she told him about her mother’s illness, Clark paused a moment, then said, “Why don’t we start over as if you never took this exam. When you are ready, you can have a second chance.” When she told me that story, my friend concluded, “He didn’t have to do that. He’s the kindest person I know.”

When former students talk about Clark, the word I hear most often is “kindness.” So it was no surprise last Saturday when Clark ended his commencement address by urging our graduates not only to be tough and resilient, but to be kind. For many of them, that was a lesson he had already taught, not just by words but by example.

Clark added one more word at the very end of that commencement address: “Grace.” Grace is a word we too seldom hear in our study of law. Law is about consequences. Grace is all about second chances. By word and example, Clark taught that both are essential to justice.

Clark brought a sense of humor to the classroom, and his students responded in kind. He has, from time to time, been referred to by students as “the Sheriff.” I’m not sure whether that’s a reference to his career roots in a Dallas law firm or to his mastery of the details of service of process. On the occasion of his 50th birthday, his students arranged a small surprise: happy birthday wishes delivered by a gorilla in full costume to interrupt Civil Procedure.

As much as anyone here, Clark has served to build our law school and to mold its culture. He has been our glue — as one colleague put it, “our institutional memory and conscience rolled into one.” He has performed many of the unseen thankless tasks for which, ironically, we now say thanks.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The great teacher is not the man who supplies the most facts, but the one in whose presence we become different people.” A man of kindness and grace, Clark has made a difference for the 6,570 who have known him as a teacher and for all of us who are privileged to know him as a colleague and friend.