“Beowulf” and John Milton weren’t what motivated University Alum Ben Wetherbee to keep attending his English 350 class. Instead, it was the warmth, passion and expressive hand gestures of retiring English Prof. Ralph Williams that made him engage in the literature — an experience he said he will not soon forget.
The large, animated hands of Williams that helped connect Wetherbee to Milton have been put to great use during the past 39 years of his teaching career at the University. During his time, Williams has become renown for his welcoming personality, inviting generations of students to join in on his love for literature with his one-of-a-kind lectures.
Williams, who received both his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. from the University, boasts a long list of grand achievements throughout his career here. He has been the chair of the English Department, director of programs in Florence, Italy and head of the Great Books Program, among many accomplishments.
He was the recipient of the Golden Apple Teaching Award in 1992. The award, which is presented by the student organization Students Honoring Outstanding University Teaching, was created to pay tribute to outstanding teachers. Last month, Williams was nominated by students to receive the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Golden Apple Award.
The presentation of the award will take place tonight in Rackham Auditorium at 7 p.m., during Williams’s “very last” public lecture at the University — entitled “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”
For year, students have flocked to Williams’ classes, delighting in his personality as much as his teaching style.
Before beginning to teach each day Williams makes it a point to create a welcoming environment in his classes by personally greeting each student, either by handshake or wave.
“He seemed to be a celebrity,” said Debbie Sherman, an LSA sophomore enrolled in two of Williams’ classes this semester, “as each student squirmed in his seat waiting to shake his hand.”
After this routine, Williams begins his lectures well-known for their dramatic, moving style and incorporation of memorized passages, often in other languages.
“What sets him apart is his showmanship,” Wetherbee said. “He treats every lecture like a performance, putting an unparalleled amount of vigor and finesse into every word. You’d swear he stays up until three every night rehearsing.”
English Prof. Richard Bailey said memories of Williams often stay with students years after they leave Ann Arbor.
“Ralph has been the most memorable teacher of his generation,” he said. “You can count on graduates remembering him with great joy.”
LSA senior Chelsea Hopkins said Williams’s genuine care for his students shows in each of his classes.
“He really takes the time to acknowledge students and welcome them to his classroom,” she said. “It makes him really approachable and creates a great atmosphere.”
Sherman said that Williams’s courses have had both an educational and emotional impact on her life since she came to the University.
“Professor Williams changed my entire college experience,” Sherman said. “And I will never forget his emotional, powerful lectures to which I looked forward each week.”
Williams’s ability to engage and affect listeners is not limited to the students in his class. His capability for moving an audience has been used by the University to generate support for the humanities on campus.
English Department Chair Sidonie Smith said Williams is “an ambassador for the University and for humanities education,” and often plays a crucial role in alumni giving to the University.
“Because of his ability to engage deeply whoever he is talking to, they feel that they’ve participated in an important conversation,” she said.
The appreciation students and faculty have for Williams is matched by his own gratitude at their involvement in his life.
“I’m the luckiest man that ever was,” he said. “I’m intensely aware of the preciousness of time and hugely grateful that my students share some of their time of with me.”
After his retirement, Williams said he hopes to spend part of each year abroad in London and part in Ann Arbor to pursue writing projects and continue working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, a theatrical ensemble.
“They have a fiction that I have something to teach them,” he said of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “The fact is, every time they open their mouths, I learn from them.”
Reflecting on his long and distinguished career at the University, Williams said he was thankful to have inspired so many.
“If I’m thought to have done good here, I’m glad,” he said. “But it’s not the only good that can be done. There is still much to achieve.”