As Joe Williams lay in a Fresno hospital battling an illness that would later take his life, one of his closest friends said he asked those around him one question: “Have I done enough?”
Mr. Williams, the first African American elected to the Fresno City Council, who in the 1970s led the city’s antipoverty work, died Feb. 8. Family, friends and colleagues celebrated his life and accomplishments with tears, laughter and music on Thursday morning at Peoples Church in northeast Fresno.
The 79-year-old was remembered for playing football, for serving in the U.S. Army, and for his tireless work in the community mentoring high school football players, leading neighborhood organizations, serving as director of the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission and as a developer.
Mr. Williams was a devoted family man but was also dedicated to serving the community, friends said, and always looked out for the less fortunate.
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Here’s a guy who’s leaving a footprint bigger than Shaquille O’Neal’s size 22’s and he’s wondering if he’s done enough.
Richard Heath, longtime friend of Joe Williams
“Here’s a guy who’s leaving a footprint bigger than Shaquille O’Neal’s size 22’s, and he’s wondering if he’s done enough,” said longtime friend and colleague Richard Heath.
Mr. Williams moved to Fresno from Biloxi, Miss., when he was 9. He graduated from Edison High School, Fresno City College and Fresno State. James Hendricks met Mr. Williams in the sixth grade, played football with him in high school and joined the Army with him and two other friends.
He enjoyed a good laugh, genuinely cared for people, and was a good listener who thought carefully about what he heard before making a comment, Hendricks said. It was those attributes that earned Mr. Williams a spot on the City Council. He was elected in 1977 and served two four-year terms, representing the area of northeast Fresno near Hoover High School.
That was significant, Hendricks said, because Mr. Williams was elected from outside of the west Fresno area, and he helped pave the way for other aspiring African Americans to enter politics.
In 1970, Mr. Williams became the fourth executive director, and the first African American, to lead the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission. He spent 23 years with the agency, helping it develop more than 45 programs including services for low-income families, the Women, Infants and Children Program, the first rural health clinic in Fresno County, and the Sanctuary Program for homeless youth. The sanctuary was renamed the Joe Williams Center upon his retirement.
But Mr. Williams continued to serve the community long after retirement. He was a founding member of Premier Valley Bank alongside developer Tom Richards and others. “We found a number of things (we had) in common, and we forged a friendship that lasted 17 years,” Richards said.
The pair would meet for lunch and occasional dinners and talk about sports, golf, Fresno State and the ups and downs of the San Francisco 49ers. “We talked about the good and bad things in Fresno and what can be done to make them better,” said Richards, who choked up a couple times during his reflection speech.
We talked about the good and bad things in Fresno and what can be done to make them better.
Tom Richards, friend of Joe Williams
They would eventually become partners in a west Fresno development. Mr. Williams, Hendricks and high school friend James Aldredge formed HAW-Fifty-Six to provide services and housing in the neighborhood. The trio brought on Richards to build Edison HAW Plaza, a regional center and library at California and Walnut avenues. Then the group teamed up with the Fresno Housing Authority on a multifamily apartment complex, which recently completed phase one of construction.
“Without Joe and Jim and Jim, this would never have occurred, and this frankly was the most important thing to them – giving back to their community,” Richards said.
In 2010, Mr. Williams received the Leon S. Peters Award – the Fresno Chamber of Commerce’s top honor for long-term service to the community. He was interviewed on video about the award and asked how he would like to be remembered in the scorebook (a reference to football) about the life of Joe Williams. The video was shown at the service.
“I just want him to say that you left things better than it was when you got here,” Mr. Williams said. “That you improved the conditions and that you were fair and you were dedicated and you believed.”