Every so often, a city is blessed with a leader who channels intelligence, energy and passion into serving his community. Neil Williams, who died August 26 at the age of 76, was such a man.
If there were a yearbook of life, Williams’ entry would run for many pages. A managing partner of the law firm Alston & Bird. Chairman of the Duke Endowment. Trustee of Trinity Presbyterian Church. Board chairman of the Woodruff Arts Center. President of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra board. And on it would go.
He was a sought-after counselor in business and culture, with good reason. “One of Neil’s great gifts was finding commonality and common purpose among a group of diverse individuals with differing perspectives,” says Norman Mackenzie, director of choruses at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and director of Music and Fine Art at Trinity Presbyterian. “He had a common-sense approach to problem solving that served him well, and never failed to get at the heart of an issue.”
Williams not only possessed an eye for detail but was also a macro thinker. “Neil was the rare sort of arts leader who always kept the big picture in mind in terms of supporting the Atlanta Symphony but also in thinking about the health of orchestras as arts institutions and even in the place of classical music in our society,” says Pierre Ruhe, co-founder of ArtsATL.com and now director of artistic administration for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.
Indeed, Williams was, says Atlanta artist Susan Cofer, “alert to everything that was good for Atlanta.” Cofer, who served with him on the board of the Vasser Woolley Foundation, cited his role in bringing important papers of Flannery O’Connor to Emory University’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Book Library.
A bear-like 6 feet 4 inches tall, with a bass voice as rich and dark as good ale, the Charlotte native was as much a force in personality as he was in the community. Known for a wicked wit and frequent hugs, he lived large in every way. He enjoyed good food, good wine, art and nature, thriving on long hikes and playing yardman at his second home in the Georgia mountains.
Williams’ abiding passion, however, was music. He played string bass in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra during high school, sang in the Duke Symphony Chorus and considered a musical career before deciding on law.
A love of music was one of the ties that bound him and Sue, his wife of 54 years. They had been acquaintances since middle school and, as he told Cofer, he set his heart on her. Sue, who is on ArtsATL’s board of directors, must have been equally smitten. Family friend Robin Bernat says Sue became a dorm monitor in college so that she could have a private room in which to receive Neil on Sundays.
“They were devoted to each other, both dedicated teachers of art, fabulous role models in all aspects of life,” Bernat says.
Music was an animating thread of their lives together. They sang in the Robert Shaw Chorale and Trinity church choir, where, Mackenzie says, he was a mainstay of the bass section.
“Neil felt a genuine joy in the purposes of the institutions he served,” Mackenzie says. “It was not enough to lead; he wanted to participate!”
Leading. Performing. Teaching. Attending. Their son Fred says he knew not to call them on Thursday nights because they would surely be out at a concert. How apt that Alston & Bird — together with the Charles Loridans Foundation, the Mark and Evelyn Trammell Foundation and the Vasser Woolley Foundation — honored Williams upon his 1996 retirement as the law firm’s managing partner by endowing the Neil and Sue Williams Principal Guest Conductor Chair of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Donald Runnicles, who occupies that chair, counted Williams as a dear friend. Reached in Europe, he offered this tribute by email:
“It was as eagerly sought a visit as it was apprehensively anticipated. It belonged to the time-honoured ritual of the Thursday night opening — traditionally the first concert of three, the premiere, so to speak — that, after the applause had subsided and the performers had left the stage, a large, imposing, softly spoken gentleman with enviably boyish curly hair would fill the doorway of the conductor suite and pronounce in his inimitable Southern drawl, ‘My Lord, what in the world have we just heard, my friend?’
“With that, the conversation about the performance was declared open, Neil and Sue took their seats, a drink was poured and I fell in love with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra all over again.
“For this great man, this beautiful couple, personified this institution more wonderfully than anyone I know. Unfailingly generous, graciously honest, quietly serene, Neil and Sue were devoted to one another and, in turn, devoted to ‘their’ orchestra. In anecdote after anecdote, the hallowed name of ‘Mr. Shaw’ was invariably invoked as Neil bore witness with mischievous wit and humble admiration to the long and wonderful journey that this storied orchestra has traveled.
“With his singular and relished delight in the English language, replete with Southern inflection, Neil would entertain us for hours, Sue attentively at his side in her adoringly supportive and gently corrective way. As surely as Neil could throw great insights into the music that he heard and loved, so too did he embrace the new and unfamiliar. His counsel was invaluable, his intuition flawless.
“Together we traveled to Berlin. In true ASO style there was no one more eagerly expected after the [Benjamin] Britten performance than Neil to pronounce his verdict on the evening. I have grown to love these two remarkable human beings, and now there is just one. Dearest Sue, my heart goes out to you.
“It is inconceivable to me that the tall and handsome gentleman will no longer fill that doorway, that I will no longer experience the firm handshake, the tear-filled eyes of a phenomenal human being who was not ashamed to show and to share deep, heartfelt emotion [and say]: ‘My friend, what you have given us tonight, Lordy me, is a true gift!’
“My friend, my counsel, what you have given me, given this orchestra and the Atlanta community will forever be cherished. How I will miss you. As my eyes in turn are filled with deeply grateful tears, Neil, I will hold you in my heart forever.”
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday, August 30, at Trinity Presbyterian Church. Memorial gifts may be sent to Duke Law School, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra or Trinity Presbyterian.