Mike Williams is not your typical police recruit. At 40 his first career ended and his second began. His commute is a little unusual, too. He drives approximately 810 miles a week, around 40,000 miles a year, from tiny Chuckey to Knoxville.
Four years ago, he was passed over as principal of Chuckey-Doak High School. He walked away from almost 20 years as an educator.
“Yep, I was more than a little upset, to say the least, and knew then it was time to take my life in a new direction,” he says. “I had always had an interest in law and law enforcement.”
Now 43, he is in his third year as an officer with the University of Tennessee Police Department. He applied to the police department in Morristown where a buddy works. Nothing happened, so he checked in with the UTPD online and they were hiring. He filled out an application online, was called and came to Knoxville for interviews. He was hired.
“I was told they liked and appreciated my maturity and sense of ethics,” Williams says. “It has been a great fit and I love it here.”
He was a night patrol officer his first two years, patrolling the campus and the Fort Sanders neighborhood. Today he’s one of three officers in the UTPD Community Relations Unit. As part of that, he has a very visible role during football season. This past season was his first as the UTPD officer assigned to accompany and provide security for football coach Jeremy Pruitt along with Tennessee Highway Patrol Lt. Eric Miller. Being a lifelong UT football fan, he’s truly enjoying this job.
He walks the Vol Walk alongside the coach. He spends the night at the hotels with the team before game day. He travels to all away games, attends some practices and is with the coach for the weekly “Vol Calls” radio show.
The obvious question from a fan would be, “So, what’s Coach Pruitt like?”
“He’s a very pleasant guy to be around,” he says. “He is very focused on football, and down to earth and a humble man with a good sense of humor. And he is very, very family-oriented.”
Now, about that daily commute – 81 miles each way. “We’re hoping to move to Morristown soon, maybe closer,” he says. “It’s a tough commute, and when I was working that night shift coffee was my best friend. I didn’t get a lot of sleep.”
Wife Heather also commutes to her job as a biology teacher at Cocke County High School – but that’s only 37 miles one way. Williams and Heather have a blended family; each brought two kids into their second marriages. That can create challenges as well.
Before he finished his college days at Carson-Newman University with a degree in political science (he also has his master’s degree in education administration), he attended Walters State in Morristown. His father, the Rev. James Williams, is 76 and still preaching at Grace Baptist Church in Morristown. His mother, Judy, was an elementary school teacher for 30 years before retiring into a life of a preacher’s spouse only.
While at Carson-Newman, his goal was to head for law school after graduation. But not wanting to spend more years in school and growing up around his mother’s love of education, he followed in her footsteps. He taught social studies at West Greene High School and Chuckey-Doak Middle School and was assistant principal at Chuckey-Doak High. And for two years he was the principal at Ottway Elementary School.
UTPD’s Community Relations team conducts education and outreach programs. So, he is back to education, and he feels right at home. “Education and law enforcement are alike in some ways. You’re dealing with people during some not so pleasant situations,” he explained. “My life in education helped prepare me for this. If you’ve never faced an angry mama at school who thinks her baby has been wronged, well, she is a force to be reckoned with, let me tell you. If you can successfully handle that, you will be OK in law enforcement.”
Williams is also teaching again. He teaches classes on alcohol awareness, Active Shooter Response, drinking and driving, and personal safety on campus. He also teaches an all-female, for-credit RAD class – Rape Aggression Defense.
It’s safe to say that life is good for Williams. “I love what I’m doing now – especially being a former teacher. I get to interact with the students and make a positive difference in someone’s life,” he says. “I’m an upbeat and positive guy and five years ago I never dreamed I would be here doing this.”
Another interesting aspect of his job is bumping into students he taught at Chuckey-Doak High who are UT students. A former student – Ashley Anderson – is now a full-time UTPD dispatcher. She’s a 2013 graduate of Chuckey-Doak. “It was weird at first seeing Mr. Williams at the department. But then it was kind of cool. I was dispatching him to calls. I was watching his back – it was like our roles were reversed from high school. Whenever we had a problem, we always went to him.”
What about the relationship between UTPD and the students? “For the most part the students are respectful, courteous and polite to us. The only times they’re not respectful and polite is when they are intoxicated.”
When asked how he approaches the students and others as a police officer, his mature and serious side kicks in. “Because someone gets in trouble, and it happens to a lot of people, it does not mean they’re bad people. They just made a mistake,” he says. “I treat people with professionalism, respect and kindness. You have to always be alert and ready, but I try to make a positive difference no matter the situation. You have a chance to change lives.”
Editor’s Note: Our Town Heroes highlights Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday on KnoxTNToday, and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional to feature, email Tom King or call him at 865-659-3562.