Wayne and Carolyn Williams live just inside the iconic gates of the Island Home Park neighborhood with a lovely view of the Tennessee River and a sprawling backyard perfect for a socially distanced visit.
It was a perfect location when they both taught at the Tennessee School for the Deaf, at the end of Island Home Boulevard, and it’s perfect now for their volunteer work at South Knoxville Elementary School just off Sevier Avenue.
They love their neighbors and they love their children – a son who lives with his family in western North Carolina and an unofficially adopted daughter (“she adopted us”) who lives in Oliver Springs with her family.
The Williamses are a special couple. Wayne grew up in Memphis and Carolyn in Cleveland, Tenn. They met through Wayne’s roommate, a mutual friend, at the University of Tennessee.
“We got together, and that was it,” says Wayne.
They got married in 1968 after Carolyn graduated from UT. Wayne put off his school while he went into the U.S. Air Force; he served in Korea. After the Air Force, he returned to UT and graduated.
Neither had a goal of becoming an educator for the deaf, but mentors steered them in that direction. Wayne majored in deaf education. Carolyn majored in home economics and began teaching at TSD in 1970.
“I didn’t know any sign language,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about deaf people.
“If they hired you, most of the time you’d been in the deaf-education program and you’d at least had a sign-language class. But I was really fortunate because the adult deaf accepted us, and they took me under their wing, and they taught me, and the kids were very patient, and I was teaching people who were the same age as me. They did not know how old I was. They just assumed that I was older.”
“She learned to sign better than me because she was totally immersed in sign language, so it was either sink or swim for her,” says Wayne.
“There’s good things to be said about total immersion,” says Carolyn, “but I had a big headache from August until about January the first semester because I couldn’t follow what they were saying.”
A deaf teacher who had a class upstairs from Carolyn came down during lunch each day and sat across the table from Carolyn and conversed with her in sign language.
“I give her credit for everything.”
Carolyn taught in the home ec department. Wayne started out teaching science to elementary students, but he later taught science and math in the middle school. Finally, he taught woodshop.
Toward the end of his time at TSD, Wayne started taking kids to “sheltered workshops, Sunshine Industries.”
“We helped them get job skills so they could get a job when they got out of school. The last two years I was out there, Carolyn came out there and worked with me.”
“We had our own little school,” she says. “He’s sort of modest about this, but the developmental age was from 3 years up till about 10, 11, and he was so good with them. He had expectations for them, and they did.
“I think our philosophy is, we don’t care where you start, everybody can learn. You take ’em from where they are.”
They retired from TSD in 2000, but Carolyn then began working at Tennessee Infant Parent Services, a pilot program that was started at TSD. She and Wayne agree that helping parents of special-needs kids is an important part of helping the kids themselves.
They started volunteering at South Knoxville Elementary about five years ago, after Carolyn retired from TIPS.
The school’s principal, Tanna Nicely, is a big fan of the couple, and they are fans of hers.
“It’s a community school that the teachers are all involved with kids,” says Wayne. “The teachers all get along well. Dr. Nicely, she’s fantastic. She’s a wonderful woman.”
“Everybody that’s there, from the custodial staff through the principal, is there with one goal, and that’s to provide the best services to those kids no matter what level they’re on,” says Carolyn. “I’ve never seen people cooperate like that.”
They don’t have specific volunteer positions – they just help out wherever they can.
“Dr. Nicely, Tanna, calls me ‘my Wayne,’” he says. “If she wants something done, I’ll do it.”
“He repairs furniture for her,” says Carolyn. “He’s built several pieces of equipment, the latest being a library box for collecting books during the coronavirus (pandemic) so they can separate them. He’s refurbished a Little Free Library” in addition to building a Little Free Library for an apartment complex near the school.
“The garden’s been the biggest thing lately – working on landscaping, working in the garden,” he says.
Wayne and Carolyn love the outdoors. He has spent years volunteering with the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club to build and maintain trail, particularly on the Appalachian Trail. He and Carolyn volunteered at one of the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club’s first Urban Wilderness workdays. Mountain biking isn’t for them. It’s “too much work,” he says.
Wayne didn’t have many opportunities to hike in Memphis, but he has made up for it, and Carolyn has thrown herself into it, too. When he came here to go to UT, “I found the mountains, and that was my love.”
Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor who particularly enjoys spotlighting South Knoxville.