Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 18, 2012
FAITH — From his kitchen window, while he washes dishes, Marcelle Williams can look up the hill across Main Street and see where he was born.
His son, Tim, lives next door, and daughter Ginger’s home sits up past the school. His oldest daughter, Delores, is not far away in Concord.
“I have kids close to me, if I get in trouble,” Williams laughs.
It’s hard to believe it has been 20 years since Williams chaired the Rowan County Board of Education and saw it through the merger with Salisbury City Schools.
He served on the board from 1970-90‚ formative years, for sure, as integration took hold, school enrollment ballooned, new schools came on line and the computer age dawned.
Williams guided much of that transition — a hardline Democrat in a town and area of the county that’s mostly diehard Republican.
But he never lost any of his five school board elections and faced opposition for his East District seat only twice.
The irony always was that the Board of Education chairman had a 10th-grade education — schoolwise. No one ever doubted Williams’ intelligence, directness and ability to dissect a problem quickly.
“I just got interested in kids’ education because I didn’t have any, I guess,” Williams says.
He spent 40 years as a mechanic and service manager for car dealerships in Salisbury and Kannapolis. Outside of that career, for which he was often recognized, Williams’ keen interests always came down to schools and veterans.
Having served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Williams constantly fought for veterans through the American Legion, the VA hospital in Salisbury and the N.C. Veterans Commission.
In 1967, Gov. Dan Moore appointed him to lead the statewide observance of Veterans Day. In 1968-69, he served as state commander of the American Legion, spending a year criss-crossing North Carolina on his official duties.
More recently, he was the driving force behind establishment of the N.C. Veterans Home in Building 10 on the Hefner VA Medical Center campus.
I caught up with Williams this week at the house Carl Lingle built for him and his late wife, Lottie (known by all their friends as “Binkie”), after the war.
We pulled up chairs to the kitchen table, much like the late Congressman Bill Hefner did when he would pay Williams a visit.
At 90, Williams says it’s aggravating not having as much to do as he once did. He spends a lot of time at the house now.
“It’s a hard day’s work,” he says, a bit sarcastically.
Williams still drives — a Buick, because he worked at General Motors dealerships and always has driven a GM car.
He reads the Bible and walks on a treadmill twice a day. Williams also has a stationary bicycle and a few weights to keep him strong.
His trips away from the house involve going to Faith Lutheran, Faith Legion Post 327 meetings or doctor appointments at the VA Medical Center, now named for his old friend Hefner.
Only eight years ago, he was still lobbying legislators in Raleigh on behalf of veterans and going to the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department in Washington to make the case for the State Veterans Home in Salisbury.
C. Marcelle Williams grew up in a family of six boys and two girls. Their father was a stone mason, and life was pretty challenging as they grew up through the Depression.
When he was a youngster, Marcelle heard his father announce at dinner one evening that Shuf Lippard had a bad case of kidney choleric, which his father called “kidney collick.”
Later, Williams became so excited in reporting the news of Lippard’s ailment to others in Faith that he said the poor boy had “codney killick.”
He caught a lot of grief for that, and the name, “Codney Killick,” stuck like glue. Friends later shortened it and called Williams just plain “Codney.”
Most of the Williams brothers played baseball. A shortstop, Marcelle played at Granite Quarry High, briefly for the American Legion and on Faith’s town team in the Yadkin Valley League.
After he finished the 10th grade, his father told him he had to go to work and raise money for the family.
“I didn’t argue about it,” says Williams, who found a job at Cannon Mills in Kannapolis.
World War II interrupted baseball and the mill job. He stayed stateside with the Navy for a couple of years, working out of the Wilmington before being assigned to the USS Graffias.
The monstrous refrigerator ship sailed through the Pacific, delivering fresh meat and vegetables to the Navy fleet, skipping island to island after stocking up in places such as San Francisco and Hawaii.
Williams’ days on the Graffias ended while the ship was in dry dock on Okinawa. He was working on a lathe when something — he thinks it was the end of his tool — flew into his right eye.
Blood started gushing out of the eye. He lost vision in it, and he stayed on Okinawa Island for four long days and nights before he could find transport on a ship back to the States.
In Norfolk, Va., he eventually was treated at a public clinic, but he wouldn’t have any sight in the eye for years. He credits Dr. Ozzie Reynolds and “laser beam” treatments for eventually restoring some of his sight in the right eye.
“My good eye is getting awfully weak,” he complains now, “but it’s been used heavily.”
Williams became involved with veterans initially in his trips to the VA Medical Center for doctors to treat his bad eye. He struck up a friendship with the chief volunteer service officer and was soon named to the veterans service committee.
He served on that committee for decades.
Williams also became a rock-solid member of the Faith American Legion, going on to serve as district, division and state commander.
He married Lottie in 1942 and, as their children grew up in Faith, he served on advisory councils at their schools. One night his doorbell rang, and two friends walked in, encouraging him to run for the school board.
Williams asked for a week to think it over, so he could consult with Miss Binkie among other things.
“She probably had rather I didn’t,” Williams says, looking back. “But I didn’t think I would get elected.”
For most of his years on the school board, Williams worked closely with Superintendent Wade Mobley. “He was a 100 percent true gentleman — sometimes too good to some,” Williams says.
The years city and county officials spent wrangling over merger of the two school system were frustrating, Williams says. It finally took some new blood on the boards for things to finally move along, he recalls.
The present-day controversy revolves around centralized offices for Rowan-Salisbury Schools and where they should be located.
“I promised myself I wouldn’t get into that,” Williams says. “I’ve been there, done that.”
But he can’t help but wonder aloud why more thought has not been given to considerable acreage the school board already owns adjacent to the bus garage off Old Concord Road.
Williams had a lot to do with building the garage, which was named the C. Marcelle Williams Transportation Complex in his honor.
The ROTC rifle range at East Rowan High also is named for Williams, because he played a pivotal role in establishing that program.
All of Williams’ brothers have passed away now, except youngest brother Bill, former editor of the Gastonia Gazette. They keep in touch by telephone or during holidays.
At times, Bill can’t help but call him “Codney.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.