A ‘larger than life person’: Remembering Professor Ruth Williams

Ruth Williams shares a smile with her students.
(Photo provided by source)
Ruth Williams shares a smile with her students. (Photo provided by source)

Ruth Williams, former professor in the School of Education and Psychology (SEP) at Southern Adventist University, passed away on Dec. 6, according to an email sent to faculty from the President’s Office on Dec. 9. The email stated that Williams passed following a courageous battle with cancer and described her as a legendary teacher, friend and mentor who developed strong relationships with many people on campus. 

Williams worked at Southern for 26.5 years and retired last May, according to Astrid Conibear, SEP’s office manager. The email from the President’s Office explained that, for many years, Williams was the director of Southern’s psychology program, and, at some point, taught every course in its curricula.

“She challenged her students in ways that fostered incredible growth while she formed lifelong relationships with them,” the email stated, “as evidenced by the plethora of tributes we are seeing and hearing both on campus and on social media.”

Colleagues’ Tributes

Four written tributes were included in the email. Two, made by Tron Wilder, psychology professor, and Conibear, described Williams’ substantial impact on Southern’s psychology program and campus.

“She’s been a wonderful leader in our program and an extremely supportive colleague,” Wilder said. “ … Ruth has been a trailblazer here at Southern; she has been Southern’s longest-serving Black professor and is leaving her mark having crafted a strong psychology program based on science from a biblical foundation.”

Conibear, whose tribute was made at Williams’ retirement, said the former professor’s primary passion was God and service to Him. 

“She has had her faith tested in many storms, but her life is built on the Rock,” Conibear said. “ … She’s a gifted wordsmith and uses her gift to speak out forcefully to right wrongs, share ideas, and to persuade. … She loves the study of the brain and the human mind and enjoys using hers!”

Alumni Tributes

A tribute from Ann Lee, alum, detailed how Williams was skilled at teaching and made students feel seen and heard. 

“She instilled resilience in her students, encouraging us to question our world, and helping us notice the beauty and depth of human behavior,” Lee said.

Another tribute, made by Jon Pinero, alum, during Williams’ retirement, expanded on the professor’s teaching philosophy.

“Growing up I was taught to put all your heart and soul into anything that you do; however, I have never seen anyone that lives out these words more than Dr. Williams,” Pinero said. “She has a way of teaching difficult and boring topics through the lens of inspiration and intriguing insight.”

Student’s Tributes

Some current psychology students at Southern spoke with the Accent about their experiences with Williams. The professor was described multiple times as inspirational, genius and passionate.

Renée Hanson, senior, shared a message she posted on Instagram after learning of Williams’ passing.

“I’m feeling so much grief. I want to say the deepest thank you to Dr. Williams, Queen of the Psychology Program, for being wind under my wings and a tidal wave of inspiration, spirituality, and professional excellence,” the message stated.

Hanson’s post continued to express her deep appreciation for Williams’ challenging teaching style, describing hours the professor spent on the phone with her “compelling [her] deeper and deeper into accuracy, clarity, logic, and relevance.”

“If I’ve learned anything from Dr. Williams, it’s to keep hoping, keep praying, keep laughing, keep thinking, keep praising God,” the message concluded. “So, I’m praising God for the gift of being her student, for the gift of life, for the gift of Jesus. Dr. Williams, I can’t wait to talk again!”

Levi Renner, a senior, wrote in an email to the Accent that Williams consistently told her students their generation was “too passive and unwilling to stand up to abuses of authority.”

Renner recounted a class period during which Williams ordered a student to rise and face the wall. The student obeyed, to Williams’ chagrin. She then set her sights on Renner and  commanded him to leave the classroom. Renner knew what she expected, but her guise was so terrifying, all he could do was shake his head.

“When she demanded I leave again, I finally plucked up the courage to say ‘no’ aloud, and, after a really tense moment, she finally broke character and praised me for standing up to her,” Renner wrote. “That class period had a huge impact on me because it helped me realize that, as an adult, I can and should stand up to abuses of authority. What a valuable lesson and what a powerful way to learn it. Thanks Dr. Williams!”

Zarina Gurley, also a senior, described Williams as the epitome of a teacher who goes above and beyond. She was hard on her students but also had a quirky sense of humor.

Although she didn’t know it at the time, Gurley and her classmates were being shadowed by a mysterious figure during last year’s annual Southeastern Psychological Association meeting in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The figure, they later learned, was one of Williams’ student assistants whom she directed to follow the group in disguise to teach the class a lesson on awareness.

Williams was simultaneously strict and fun, and she cared about her students individually, Gurley added.

“[She was] a very understanding person,” Gurley said. “ … When I needed some kind of accommodation, but I didn’t necessarily have the documentation for it, she made sure to understand what the situation was and still expected me to grow like everyone else. … Most professors haven’t quite done it the way she did.”

Moriah Shadley, master’s student, changed her major her senior year from theology to psychology. Her first experience in the program was Research Design and Statistics at 8 a.m. with Williams.

“She was this very larger than life person. She was literally a genius,” Shadley said. “On the first day … I sat there terrified, like, ‘What did I get myself into?’ She knew everything.”

Williams’ intellect was intimidating, said Shadley. She forced her students to pursue excellence, to push the boundaries and develop studies that meant something, that covered topics that weren’t mainstream. 

“She forced us to go outside of the normal of what you’re expected to do,” Shadley said. “ … It was always a pain … and it was amazing.”

If it weren’t for Williams, Shadley would have dropped psychology, she said. Shadley enjoys being challenged and appreciated Williams’ knack for encouraging students to utilize their unique experiences and passions. Williams helped Shadley develop practicum criteria when she chose to pursue equine therapy, hired Shadley as a reader because she knew her struggles with dyslexia would help her help others and shared Shadley’s pain when her mom was diagnosed with cancer.

Shadley said Williams was the mother of the psychology program. She wore dramatic clothes and hats, terrified her students and was there when they needed to cry.

When Shadley learned of Williams’ passing, she was surprised. She didn’t know she had been battling cancer. 

“She didn’t want her problems to be other people’s problems,” Shadley said.

A Life Remembered

Williams’ obituary, published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, detailed her impressive educational journey, concluding with a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Minnesota. 

“However, [Williams] unapologetically expressed that her most significant accomplishment was a degree that she did not earn: her B.A. degree (‘Born Again’ into the tangible, viable kingdom of God),” the obituary stated. “An outspoken advocate for the downtrodden, oppressed and those without a voice, Dr. Williams was a passionate believer that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

The obituary continued to describe William’s career in teaching, one she excelled at on an international level at multiple universities. She was repeatedly recognized for her expertise and was also a popular public speaker and preacher. 

The obituary stated that Williams is succeeded by several family members, whom she considered to be “the wind beneath her wings.”

“Dr. Williams enjoyed meeting new people and making and keeping friends,” the obituary concluded. “She believed that there are fewer joys that supersede a good book, a good friend, and a good laugh! She was loved by many and an inspiration to countless students, colleagues, friends, and family.”

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