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In Memoriam: David Williams, Former Music Department Chair

Those who knew David Russell Williams will cherish fond memories of him as a mentor to students, staff and faculty. As such, he was an honorary member of the Black Student Association and received the Angel Award in 1984. In 1994, he received the University of Memphis Distinguished Teaching Award.

Dr. Williams was known nationally as an expert crossword puzzler and cryptographer. He owned an extensive multi-language dictionary collection, some dating back to the 19th century. He was a wordsmith, his mind was quick and his ready wit will not be forgotten.

“David Williams was a dear colleague and true friend to the School of Music long after his retirement. As a music theory faculty member, most of our music majors had at least one class with him,” said Randal Rushing, current chair of the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music. “Faculty and students fondly remember his soft-spoken manner and friendly disposition. He was a highly regarded teacher and scholar, frequently attending a wide array of concerts and recitals, showing support for his many students and colleagues.”

Former chair of the then Memphis State University Music Department, Williams passed away Dec. 6 at Baptist East after a fall in his home. Williams became professor of music in 1980, serving double duty as department chair until 1987.

After stepping down as chair, he continued his professorship until he retired in 1998. Williams them became professor emeritus, a position he held until his death. 

Dr. Williams was born on Oct. 21, 1932, in Indianapolis to Mary Dean and H. Russell Williams. In 1954, he received an Artium Baccalaureatus (A.B.) Degree, which is equivalent to a B.A. and an M.A. in music composition in 1956 from Columbia University in New York. While at Columbia, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation, he was hired as chief instructor of the U.S. Army Band Training School in Ft. Chaffee, Ark. He would leave that position in 1959 to work as music director at Windham College in Putney, Vt.

In 1962, Dr. Williams began working on his doctorate in music composition from Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York. During that time, he was an opera coach through his doctoral assistantship.

He graduated in 1965 and remained on the faculty at Eastman, serving in several administrative positions, until his arrival at the University in 1980. As part of his musical education, Dr. Williams studied music composition with notable composers Howard Hanson, Otto Luening, Henry Cowell and Jack Beeson. He also studied with American harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe, American concert pianist William Beller who was considered a child prodigy at age 4, and Italian concert pianist Orazio Frugoni.

Over the years, Dr. Williams published several books, most recently in 2008. He co-authored a two-volume bibliography and guide to music theory and theorists with David Damschroder and Matthew Balensuela. He served as National Secretary for the College Music Society, on the Board of Governors for the National Academy of Recording Sciences and on the Board of Directors for the National Association of Schools of Music.

From 1986-87, he was president of the Tennessee Association of Music Executives of Colleges and Universities. Locally, Dr. Williams was involved in many activities in the Memphis community, including the Executive Board of Opera Memphis, the Board of Directors for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the Board of directors of the Memphis Youth Symphony. He was also a University of Memphis Column Society member.

“He was such a generous man,” said Marianne R. Hartquist, director of Development School of Music. “He made it a point to drop by my office every week and say hello, update me on his most recent research, or to tell a story about his days as Chair of the Music Department. He will be missed.”

Dr. Williams is survived by his wife of 52 years, Elsa Williams originally of Switzerland, and a sister, Barbara DeVault, of Madison, Wisconsin. Memorial donations can be made to the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music, University of Memphis Foundation, Dept. 238, P.O. Box 1000, Memphis, TN 38148.

Obituary picture for former University of Memphis CCFA Music Department Chair David Russell Williams

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Last Updated: 3/13/13