By T. Scott Boatright
Ever since coming to Grambling State University (GSU), Thelma Williams, who celebrated her 97th birthday in January, has long believed in “mind over matter.”
“If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” remains Williams’ mantra, eyes aglow and smile shining brilliantly all the while.
Her decades of work teaching young children through college-aged students as well as serving as one of Grambling’s unofficial historians of sorts garnered the attention of the Louisiana Legislature.
Williams was recognized by the Louisiana Senate and House of Representatives on May 12 while she was in Baton Rouge visiting daughter Alicia Williams, a 1983 Grambling State University graduate, and Senior Special Assistant to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, by her side.
It was in 1956 when Thelma Williams first came to Grambling.
“When I first came here, it just seemed like a hot, cowboy town,” said Williams, a West Virginia native who had graduated from Morgan State University. “I didn’t know what to think. And at first, I burned up the road going to visit my brother, who had gone to Howard (University) and was a dentist in Baton Rouge. I spent a lot of time when I first got here driving down there to see him. And I adjusted to the heat and it being a smaller town and ended up creating a good life here.”
Williams spent years teaching swimming and dance in GSU’s Department of Health and Physical Education, even teaching modern dance to players on Eddie G. Robinson’s football team.
“Coach Robinson realized I might be able to help the players with their feet, how they moved and pushed off of them,” Williams said. “I don’t know what the players thought about this little lady trying to teach them, but they were polite and did listen.”
Williams taught swimming and dancing at GSU for years and recently got the opportunity to see the new Intramural Center, which she said took her back to Grambling roots.
“This is where it all started for me,” Williams said. “I started work here with CD Henry as my boss. But this new pool and building is so nice. It brings back memories, but it’s different from what I remember.”
Williams has many Grambling-based memories. In 1988 she helped organize “The President’s Summer Drug Awareness Convocation” and even traveled to Washington, D.C. with the program. She also helped create what became an annual Fourth of July Celebration at GSU. In November of 1993 Wiliams was the first speaker for the First Charles D. Henry/Pearl H. Vaughn Lecture Series.
Williams made her first Women’s Day Speech at Mount Olive, was one of the first judges for the GSU’s Miss Calendar Girl Pageant, choreographed the pageant in times past, and worked with coronations for Miss GSU.
She also felt it was important to learn from the past in order to move forward, striving to make sure her students knew things like the lyrics to the Negro National Anthem and the history behind Black spirituals.
“I taught Black History before it was required,” Williams said. “The only way to move forward is to know your history and where you came from. That helps tell you where you want to go.”
Susan Wiley, a lecturer in GSU’s College of Business, remembers the impact Williams made on her when Wiley was a young schoolgirl.
“Mrs. Williams was an amazing teacher,” Wiley said. “Her love and passion for teaching were evident each day. I am eternally grateful to her for teaching us “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which she required us to memorize in its entirety. Mrs. Williams is still blessing my life.”
Williams also impacted GSU President Rick Gallot when he was a young schoolboy.
“Although I have no independent recollection of this ever actually happening, Mrs. Williams tells the story that she always took her shoes off in the classroom,” Gallot said. “She says I hid her shoes from her one day. Again, I don’t remember doing it. But I was a tad mischievous, so it’s definitely not out of the question.”
“Mrs. Williams made sure every student she taught learned ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.’ She has a way of making an impact on everyone she meets,” Gallot continued. “Williams’ love of Grambling became so strong that in 1980 she published the book “Grambling: A Pictorial History.”
“That book was the work of love,” Williams said. “I love meeting people and getting to know them. I love history and learning about the past in hopes of making the future better. And I love Grambling, so putting the book together was fun. It was the work of love.”