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“Know me for who I am:” Remembering Indiana giant Vernon A. Williams

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It was Saturday, at 12:30 a.m. when Steve ‘Scoop’ Jefferson, fraternity brother and reporter, received the call from Joyce Williams, the cherished wife of Vernon A. Williams. In a voice filled with heartache and strength, she shared the news that Williams had transitioned from this life to rest in the next, leaving a void in our hearts and a legacy.

Williams earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from Indiana University and a master’s in communication from Purdue University. A proud native of Gary, Indiana, Williams sculpted a remarkable career. He left an indelible mark in journalism, education, art and marketing.

To some, it was his ability to tell a story, be it news, print or plays; it was unparalleled. To others, it was his “strong melodious voice, his commanding presence, his quiet strength, and/or his scholarly decision making,” said Dr. Toby Malichi, a member of The White House Business Council and fraternity brother.

Williams’ journalism career began in Gary as a Post-Tribune reporter, columnist and editorial board member. He was the morning drive personality for “The Breakfast Club” and was the station manager for WGVE. In 2001, Williams moved to Indianapolis to become the marketing supervisor for the Indianapolis Public Schools Career-Technical Education.

Vernon A. Williams and Robert Shegog (2016 PETE MADIA)

He later became the Vice President of Communication for the Indiana Black Expo under the tutelage of then IBE CEO Tanya Bell Mckinzie (Founder and CEO of T&C Group, LLC).

“I am blessed to have had the opportunity to work and serve alongside Vernon for more than two decades in our various roles with Indiana Black Expo,” Mckinzie said. “During this time, I observed in awe his unwavering faith in GOD, prowess as a public relations and communications expert, passion and dedication to the arts, and commitment to community. He was a true champion for the voiceless. Though he has transitioned to the other side of glory, his rich legacy will continue.”

IBE President and CEO Alice Watson said, “IBE has lost another special foot soldier. Vernon Williams served and supported the organization for over 30 years as a Gary and Indianapolis Chapter member, a former IBE Board vice chair, and on staff as an IBE vice president of communications. He was always just a phone call away when needed and the first person to greet me when I started with the organization 12 years ago. He will be truly missed. The IBE Board and staff offer our prayers and condolences to the family.”

Once his assignment ended at the Indiana Black Expo, Williams accepted a position at IU Indianapolis, assisting the chancellor in communication. Later, he received the communication and community engagement strategist position for the premier urban research campus. He led IUPUI’s Africana Repertory Theatre and was executive director of OnyxFest, the first and only annual Indiana theater festival featuring works of Black playwrights.

Teresa Francis, IU Indianapolis Communications Manager, shared that Williams’ commitment to the Onyx Festival, the writers and community collaboration was beyond compare. Williams and the Black faculty of IU Indianapolis were central to expanding how community and collaboration looked and felt when ushering in the partnership of Onyx Festival and IndyFringe.

By leveraging his social capital, Williams expanded how IU Indianapolis engages the community while building additional partnerships throughout the campus. His work not only transformed the way the community interacted, but it also left a lasting impact on the cultural landscape of IU Indianapolis.

His dedication to amplifying the community’s voice using his ability to evaluate, plan and execute opened many doors. Still, his consistency and willingness to take ‘faith steps’ also accurately told a story of his curiosity, work ethic, faith and fate, inspiring all who crossed his path.

“Vernon was a community builder,” Malichi said.

Vernon A. Williams

Williams consistently found ways to help his community. He involved himself. His talent for building community and documenting history began as early as fourth grade when Vernon wrote and performed his first play.

Two short years later, he wrote and hosted a student broadcast over the school corporation radio station, the first of its kind. In middle school, Williams started a weekly hand-printed newsletter on notebook paper. As a junior, he started a teen news column for Gary Info Newspaper — where his biggest “scoop” was being the first to report the Jackson Five signing with Motown Records.

In a full-circle moment, reporter Steve Jefferson tells the story of when he was assigned to report Michael Jackson’s Copyright Case in Indiana and covered the depositions in 2003. Jefferson states, “When we got to Gary, and I said Vernon’s name, doors opened.” More recently, Jefferson served as Williams’s advisor when he became President of the Indianapolis Association of Black Journalists, a position Jefferson once held. Williams’ innate ability to lead, follow, teach and be a student make him a great leader. The loss of Williams is deeply felt by all who knew him, and his absence will be keenly felt in the community.

The Indiana University Vice Chancellor for Community Engagement Amy Conrad Warner said, “We have been blessed to have Vernon Williams in our lives. While I will miss his friendship, advice, and guidance, I know that he will be honored in perpetuity at Indiana University as a graduate, with distinguished alumni awards and as a champion of excellence at IUPUI.”

His achievements are a testament to his dedication and talent. Williams was recognized by the IU Alumni Association with a President’s Award in 2022. He was honored by the IU Groups Program with the Covered Bridge Award, the Center for Leadership Development Community Leaders Award, the 100 Black Men of Indianapolis Silver Anniversary Service Award, The National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa — Beta Mu Chapter Community Service Award, Hoosier State Press Association First Place in Newswriting. He also received the coveted Indianapolis Recorder Champions of Diversity Award for his works that transformed the community and transitioned the mindset of the people.

Williams’ highly noted career in theater included 11 plays — the most recent being “A Noise in the Attic.” Other notables include “The Divine Nine,” which offers a glimpse into the dynamics of Black fraternities and sororities. 2019 Williams wrote, produced, and directed “The Price of Progress: The Indiana Avenue/IUPUI Story.” He also authored four books, the latest being “God Said Tell You.”

When his health began to wane, he was adamant about people knowing of his work and worth, not his health.

“I want people to know me for who I am,” Williams said at the time.

His colleagues, advisors, mentors, mentees, and the community all remember Williams as a man who exuded excellence, taught in ways that ignited perspective and believed with an unbridled faith.

His fraternity brothers added, “None, no greater than the originator.” Indiana will miss Williams but will remember his life and legacy.

The Williams family invites the community to monumentalize Williams’s life and contributions on Friday, May 24, 2024, at Kingdom Apostolic Ministries (4900 E. 38th Street). The viewing and visitation will commence at 10 a.m., followed by the service at noon. This is a moment for our community to unite, share cherished memories of Williams, and honor his profound impact on our lives and the community.

Instead of flowers, Joyce Williams would like memorial contributions to go to the Indiana University Foundation in the care of the Africana Repertory Theatre of IU. Indianapolis ARTI in the Indiana University Indianapolis School of Liberal Arts, PO Box 6460, Indianapolis, IN, 46206-6460. You can also give online at https://give.myiu.org/iupui/I320015132.html.

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