R.I.P. Edith Williams

Betty BeanSouth Knox

Update:  Edith Williams died at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 8, at Shannondale Nursing Home. Receiving of Friends will be 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 13, Lighthouse Christian Church, 8015 Facade Lane, Powell. A short service will follow at 1 p.m.

This story was published on Jan. 3 at Knox TN Today:

There were some men involved in the effort to restore the name Lady Vols to the University of Tennessee’s women athletes, but most of the combatants were women, and there was no more relentless a warrior in the cause than Edith Williams, a 1951 UT graduate. A picture of the wheelchair-bound Williams hugging former Athletics Director Currie for reinstating the name (taken by Pat Summitt biographer Maria Cornelius) has come to symbolize the three-year struggle.

On Tuesday afternoon, former Lady Vol athlete Mollie DeLozier shared some news on a Facebook page called “Brought Back Lady Vols” (formerly “Bring Back Lady Vols”).

Edith Williams hugs John Currie, thanking him for restoring the Lady Vols logo. Photo by Maria Cornelius

“Unexpected FYI: Our beloved Edith Williams is in congestive heart failure and is expected to be moved to hospice care very soon. I just visited her, and asked her if it was OK to post this. She smiled and said, ‘I would love it.’ I told her this all seemed to happen very quickly and was surprising. She said it surprised her too. Lol! Her body is failing, but she’s still Edith.”

Almost instantly, responses started pouring in; 24 hours later, there were more than 200 reactions from old friends, new friends and friends she’s never even met:

“Edith, I feel like I know you. You are an inspiration to all that have watched you tirelessly fight to save the brand that Pat built. I admire you and I know Pat is watching and feels the gratitude that I feel. I just want to say thank you for preserving something that means so much to me and young women around the country. God bless you and keep you.”

“Sending Prayers. Such a good example of a strong, determined woman. I enjoyed getting to know her. She taught at my elementary school although I didn’t have her, stories she shared were wonderful to hear and reminded me of that time. She knew my dad and stepmother as well. So, when I got to meet her at the first rally I become such an admirer of hers. Thank you, Edith Williams, for your support, your fire and your unending fight for the Lady Vols.”

The flood of reactions is hardly surprising to anyone who knows Williams, who celebrated her 88th birthday Dec. 16. Her already considerable circle of friends expanded exponentially over the past couple of years with her tireless efforts to get the name “Lady Vols” restored to UT’s women athletes after it was removed in 2014. DeLozier was instrumental in Williams’ involvement.

“Monday night I learned from my friend and her cousin Bob Godwin about her failing health. I was told I could visit, so I did yesterday. She was very frail, but her spirit, mind and presence were still strong. I asked if I could post about her current circumstances with our Facebook group and she said yes. I told her I would ask for prayer support and that made her very happy.

“The prayer posts from that group have been pouring in since my post yesterday afternoon. Most of these folks don’t know her beyond her FB presence, but they love her. They followed her back-and-forth emails with John Currie, state Rep. Roger Kane and others relative to the reinstatement campaign. They watched her persistent fight for reinstatement. She kept a lot of folks going when they had just about given up,” DeLozier said.

Godwin agrees.

“Edie has always been a force of nature – such personality, such vigor. She volunteers at Tennova in South Knoxville on Fridays, and nobody got past her without signing the petition to restore the Lady Vols name.”

Debby Jennings, Pat Summitt’s information director for more than 30 years, got to know Williams during the course of her job:

“Edith Williams has a personality like a joyful bottle of lightening. I first met her following a speaking engagement at her church and was introduced to a lifelong Tennessee fan through-and-through. Once she got to know you, tested you a little bit, you were claimed as a friend forever. Each time I saw her thereafter, she would inquire about my mom and dad (who were her same age), go through the niceties of “how have you been” and then proceed to pepper me with questions and share her opinions of the Big Orange … from in the moment, to the last 60+ years.

“Edith called quite a bit after the decision was made to remove the Lady Vol name. It truly made her mad. How could she help? Who should she call? What could she do? Grass didn’t grow under Ms. Edith. A Facebook social media maven, Edith let her opinions fly. She joined ‘Save the Lady Vols,’ helped to collect signatures on the petitions started by Susan Whitlow and Jean Lusardi, sent letters to the editor, called the University of Tennessee Athletics Department/Chancellor’s and President’s offices, dropped notes to the legislators and made her voice heard. Edith became a force for change.

“Once then-UT Athletic Director John Currie restored the Lady Vol name and logo this past fall, Edith declared she’d give him a hug. It never gets old seeing the photos of a smiling Edith, bear-hugging John, each time she saw him.”

Linda Wright Wilkenson met Williams through Facebook. She volunteered to drive Williams to some Lady Vols-related events, and they’ve done a lot of talking. Wilkenson knows the biography by heart:

“She went to Knoxville High School and took flying lessons. She soloed in a plane taking off and landing several times at the age of 15. She followed in her mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps by joining Tri Delta sorority. She was followed by her granddaughter. … I took her to a ‘Bring Back the Lady Vols’ rally and that’s all it took. She began getting signatures right and left.

“She called the two who started this craziness Hartless and Cheekless and sent them very stern emails explaining her displeasure in their decision. When we would go out to eat, she would say, ‘Linda, take this over there to that table and TELL them to sign my petition.’ I don’t remember anyone refusing Edith. She loved John Currie and Beverly Davenport. After the announcement that the Lady Vols logo would be reinstated, she said she just bawled. She was determined to get that logo back. She said, ‘If I ever meet John Currie, I’m going to hug his neck.’ At the celebration, given by Terry Johnson, she got the chance.”

Edith Williams has moved to hospice care at Shannondale Nursing Home, 7424 Middlebrook Pike, Knoxville, TN 37909. Cards would be most welcome.

Edith Williams and her children: Tom, Kate, Mark and David.

Alex and Edith Williams on their first date.

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