In Support and Service
Retired Army colonel and prostate cancer survivor Jim Williams asks men to pay better attention to their health.
By Lauren Gravitz
Jim and Lois Williams relax in their home. | Photo by Alan Wycheck
It was the summer of 1959 and Jim Williams had just graduated from West Chester State Teachers College in Pennsylvania. Williams wanted to teach high school history or social studies, and maybe even coach track or cross country.
Although he had been on the honor roll, served as class treasurer, and been included in Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities, no one was hiring—or at
least they weren’t hiring him. Williams was living in a country in the midst of a civil rights movement. The schools he applied to in the Philadelphia suburbs where he lived weren’t willing to hire a black man, especially one who could also be drafted into the military at any time, he says.
Retired Army colonel Jim Williams | Photo by Alan Wycheck
Williams reconsidered his strategy. The U.S. military, which had been desegregated since 1948, was open to young men of all races. Knowing he was likely to be drafted anyway, Williams “volunteered” for the draft, which allowed him to choose the month he would go into the Army. He also reasoned he could overcome at least one obstacle in the way of his teaching career by fulfilling his two-year draft obligation.
After basic training, Williams was offered a spot in Officer Candidate School (OCS) and accepted it. But he soon discovered that, despite the military’s official stance on integration, attitudes about race hadn’t changed. Williams remembers his white peers marginalizing and undermining him and the only other black member of his class.
“They would throw you into these big dumpsters and bang on the container,” Williams says, remembering how black officer candidates were targeted. But one white upperclassman, Samuel Toomey III, would alert him if other officer candidates were planning to instigate a fight that could potentially get Williams kicked out of the program, he recalls. “I have these people I call angels who have made it just a little easier for me, without any grandstanding or publicity,” he says. “Sam would tell me when someone was going to try to ambush me and get me into a fight. If it weren’t for Sam, I would not have survived OCS.”
Toomey died in combat in Vietnam in 1968. Williams wore a silver memorial bracelet with his friend’s name on it for many years to remind him of everything Toomey had done to help him succeed.
Williams also served in Vietnam. For two years, he was an infantry officer working with South Vietnamese troops. He learned Vietnamese, took classes on how to handle insurrection and made friends in the South Vietnamese infantry—friends he still talks about today. He earned a Combat Infantry Badge for his service. Of the 16 military service awards he received, he's most proud of this one.
After returning from Vietnam, Williams held a variety of duty assignments with the Army, including as a professor of military science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He worked his way up the ranks, retiring as a full colonel in 1984 after nearly 25 years of service. During that time, he and his wife, Lois, moved 16 times and raised three children.
In some ways, Williams, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 55 in 1991, has assumed the mantle of angel, much like Toomey and the other positive influences in his life. He has made it his mission to talk to men with prostate cancer about diagnosis, treatment and life after surgery. And after seeing how many men put off doctor’s appointments and prostate exams, he is encouraging men—especially minorities—to stand up and take charge of their health before cancer ever comes into the picture.
In 1991, after the family’s 20th move, this time to Chicago, Williams was working as a human resources director for the American Bar Association. Lois insisted it was time for her husband to see a doctor.