Professor Ralph Williams educates and inspires in last lecture
With a beaming smile, a booming voice and many theatrical hand gestures, English Professor Ralph Williams began his last lecture the same way he has for the past 39 years.
Students, parents, grandparents, alumni, University faculty and administrators and Ann Arbor residents who had gotten wind of the famous professor packed Rackham auditorium to full capacity Tuesday night to listen to Williams’s last lecture before retirement and to applaud his achievement in winning the Golden Apple Laureate Lifetime Achievement Award.
Each year, University students nominate a professor for The Golden Apple Teaching Award, which recognizes a professor’s teaching and dedication to students. Williams previously won the Golden Apple Teaching Award in 1992 and was nominated last month for the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award.
Williams earned his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. from the University. In his career, he served as the chair of the English Department, helped develop the Royal Shakespeare Company Residency program at the University and received the Excellence in Teaching Award four times along with many other awards.
While the lecture event did not begin until 7 p.m., the majority of guests began filling the foyer in Rackham Graduate School an hour early, hoping to get a seat close to the stage.
LSA senior Janell O’Keefe waited outside the entrance doors an hour and a half before the lecture. She had Williams as a professor for Religion 201 (Introduction to World Religions) and English 401 (The English Bible: Its Literary Aspects and Influences) during her freshman and sophomore years. She said Williams was one of her favorite professors throughout her four years at the University.
“He really knows his stuff,” she said. “And he’s willing to talk to you anytime and anywhere.”
LSA senior Benjamin Ruano arrived at 6 p.m. He took Williams’s World Religions class as a sophomore. Ruano said Williams still remembers his name even though he took the class two years ago.
“For him to remember most of his students’ names is really remarkable,” Ruano said.
He added that Williams “definitely merits this award for his passion and the span of his knowledge.”
Even students who never had Williams for a professor came to listen to the lecture. College of Engineering junior Alex Manwell said his sister had Williams as a professor last year and “constantly raved about him.”
“He’s just a legend on campus, so I thought it would be important to see his last lecture,” Manwell said.
Previous Golden Apple Teaching Award winners John Bacon, Jim Crowfoot, John Rubadeau and Jim Adams attended the event. Rubadeau gave a short speech before the lecture in which he jokingly begged Williams not to leave.
Lester Monts, senior vice provost of academic affairs, spoke of Williams’s impact on the University and students.
“I don’t know of anyone who is more caring about his fellow human beings than Ralph Williams,” Monts said. “On behalf of the faculty and administration, I want to thank Ralph Williams for all that he has contributed to the University of Michigan, to the cultural life of this campus, to the diversity and excellence and most of all to students’ learning.”
While choking back tears, Monts concluded, “We will forever remember his love for this institution (and) his role in changing the lives of many people — including me.”
Michael Brooks, Hillel executive director and friend of Williams for more than 35 years, gave the introduction to the lecture.
He said the idea of the Golden Apple Teaching Award was inspired by Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, who in the 3rd century professed in the Talmud to “Get your life in order one day before you die.”
Brooks said the principle teaches that “we should always be giving our ideal last lectures.”
Brooks said the main advice he has given to students over the years is to take one of Williams’s classes before they graduate.
“Whatever it is, I tell them it’s going to transform the way you read, the way you think, it’s gong to transform the way you live,” he said.
After the introduction, Williams ambled up the stage to deafening applause.
He began by thanking all the speakers and his mother, whom he mentioned in various anecdotes throughout the lecture.
He then went on to explain that during his time at the University, he has served with six presidents, six chairs of the English Department and many others.
“I’ve served with a pride of provosts and vice presidents,” he said. “There’s been a whole dazzle of deans. I have had a huge host of hugely learned colleagues who’ve tried mightily to make something of my mind.”
But Williams expressed the most gratitude for all the students he taught throughout his career.
“I have fought and learned with a full biblical generation of the best students in the world brought here from every state and every land,” he said.
Williams began his lecture — titled "How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?" — by discussing his guiding principle in his life: “Never let beauty willingly die.”
“You haven’t been reading The New York Times, you haven’t been watching your televisions, if you don’t know of the exceeding pain, agony and evil around the world, amongst us and abroad,” he said.
Williams said beauty won’t solve the problems of evil “but you can set beauty against evil and perhaps bare it and bury it.”
He added that one can “find cause to celebrate life in all its rich diversity.”
During the lecture, Williams captivated the audience by reciting sonnets by William Shakespeare as well as other literature from author Toni Morrison and poet Walt Whitman.
LSA sophomore Yaser Carcora said it was one of the greatest lectures he had ever seen in his life.
“I came out of it thinking I was a better person and wanting to do better things,” he said. “I honestly regret I missed the chance to take a class with him.”
LSA senior Maria Pahl said the lecture was well worth it, even though she had been awake for 36 straight hours studying for finals.
“I’m tired out of my mind, but I came here and listened to what he had to say, and I just feel invigorated,” she said.
LSA sophomore Mark Navarro, vice president of the Undergraduate English Association, helped organize the event and performed an imitation of Williams before he spoke.
“It was an honor to express my deep and profound love for this man and all he does,” he said.
Navarro said that, besides taking English 401 with Williams, he sat in one of his classes as a senior in high school, which was his deciding factor in attending the University.
Ann Arbor resident Andrea Ludwig, a neighbor of Williams for the past two years, said she was surprised at how many people attended the lecture and was delighted at the turnout.
“It was my first lecture, and it exceeded all the enthusiastic referrals that I had gotten,” she said.
Ann Arbor resident Angela Gumina echoed everyone’s sentiments and said she felt “riveted by his lecture.”
“I felt very honored to be able to absorb his wisdom even just for this one night,” she said.
The lecture was sponsored by The Office of the Senior Vice Provost, Students Honoring Outstanding University Teaching, The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, the Undergraduate English Association, University of Michigan Hillel and Apple computers.