Meeting Dr. Kenneth Williams for the first time, without knowing who he was or what he had accomplished, I knew I was in the presence of someone special. I was being introduced by a neighbor, Dana Hollister, and the occasion was a reception at the Canfield-Moreno Estate. Tall, handsome with perfect posture and the picture of health, this refined gentleman, who I later learned was in his late seventies, had the bearing and presence of a man of great wisdom. Was it any accident that, just the previous day, I had received an e-mail invitation from a James Williams, a complete stranger to me, who had asked me to honor his father in “Who’s Who in Silver Lake”? As I began to “connect the dots”, I realized that I was destined to interview Dr. Williams, and share some of the details of his life which have contributed greatly to our community and the world in which we live.
Born in Great Britain in 1925, he was the first of four sons of a Welsh coal miner. The family was fortunate to have a sister living in New York City who had married a Swiss gentleman of some means that arranged for their passage to America. The boys attended public school and the local Welsh congregation where they sang in the choir. Apparently, Welsh boys had a reputation as good singers and it wasn’t too long before young Kenny and two of his brothers were approached by the choirmaster of the Intercession Church, a chapel of the world famous Trinity Church, the great Neo-Gothic cathedral in lower Manhattan, to sing in Intercession famous boy’s choir. The Trinity Church, which was by then an important historic church, being chartered by King William III of England in 1697, had an influential congregation that would play an important role in the life of the family and in our young doctor-to-be in particular.
Times were not good economically for the new immigrant family, and young Kenneth Williams had to drop out of school to help with the family finances. Trinity Church, where the Williams family now worshipped, had a long tradition of serving the poor and disadvantaged, offering assistance to the waves of newly-arrived immigrants that poured into New York City. One of the men of the church had connections to Wall Street, and so it was that young Mr. Williams was able to begin working as an office boy for one of the leading banking figures in New York, James Stillman, President of National City Bank. (The Stillmans were one of the richest families in New York. James and Phoebe (“FeFe”) McCormack had estates on Park Avenue and on Long Island, and were easily one of the most recognizable couples of New York City society. Phoebe McCormack, of the wealthy McCormack family of Chicago, made a sensation of herself by eloping with a handsome French Canadian, a scandal that rocked New York society and was headlines in the late 20’s).
With changes at the bank, new opportunities beckoned for young Mr. Williams. At the church, an Irishman named Mr. Charles O’Reilly was active in the American Red Cross. It was right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Mr. Reilly was recruiting volunteers to drive ambulances. It seems there was a real shortage of medics that had been mobilized for the war effort. Although Kenneth was too young at 16 years of age for the job, he was persuasive and ended up becoming a first aid attendant in the ambulance service operating on the edge of Harlem and Central Park in 1942-1943.
With American involvement in the World War, came the draft. Kenneth joined the U.S. Navy, and with his interest in medicine sharpened by his experience as an ambulance first aid attendant, he landed at the Medical Training Facility at Portsmouth, VA., where he became a Navy Medical Corpsman. He was assigned to St. Albans Naval Hospital and soon became a specialist in the operating room. As the first wave of Marines returned back from Guadalcanal, the young doctor-to-be found himself learning the practical aspects of medicine and patient care. He was assigned to a Seabee unit on Okinawa until the end of the war and his discharge in1946.
After the war, Kenneth’s experience in the operating room fueled his desire to further his education and thus began his formal education. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Vermont in 1950 and then went directly to the University’s Medical School, graduating in 1954. He then moved on to Buffalo, NY, where he did his internship at Buffalo General Hospital and then served his junior pediatric residency at Buffalo Children’s Hospital. It was at Buffalo that he met his future wife, a pretty young nurse named Sally Barber.
Dr. Williams went on to become an expert in the medical fields of Hematology and Oncology, the study of blood and tumors, respectively. Dr. Williams, who was by now Associate Professor of Pediatrics at USC Keck School of Medicine and Attending Staff Physician at Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles, began to notice the incidence of infections
in a few hemophiliac patients. Physicians in California and New York reported a new occurrence of infection in the gay and drug using population. At the time, he was serving on the Los Angeles County Medical Association Council representing USC. His observance of this new disease was alarming to him, and he repeatedly brought the subject up at first to often unreceptive ears. His continuing concern and his desire to explore the subject with his colleagues led to his appointment as the first Chairmen of the LACMA Committee on AIDS. The AIDS epidemic had gripped the nation and there were few answers and great denial from society and even the medical community. Dr. Williams’ selection for this important position proved to be a turning point in the AIDS debate. His no-nonsense, practical approach to problem-solving was what was needed. As a result of his leadership, the Council became a lightning rod that forced the public and the medical community to come to grips with the epidemic. During his chairmanship, the Committee was known for its innovative ideas such as creating educational films about the virus and an AIDS prevention billboard campaign.
While Dr. Williams Curriculum Vitae is long and impressive, space does not permit us to divulge all here. There is, however, one aspect of his service that also deserves special commendation. In the mid-sixties, the pediatric president of the Los Angeles Pediatric Society, Dr. Leslie Holve became increasingly aware of the lack of medical attention available to children in the inner city and was determined to do something about it. The Society answered a call from St. Johns Episcopal Church located not far from the main campus of the University of Southern California. The faculty responded with a spirit of volunteerism, which eventually led to the establishment of the St. Johns Well Child Center, a precursor to the free clinics which have spread across the country and the world. Dr. Williams became a volunteer in 1965 and director in 1977 and served until 1997. He is to be honored in the near future, when a new wing of the clinic will be dedicated as the Dr. Kenneth O. Williams Wing.
Since retiring from Children’s Hospital in 1990 he has been blessed by continuing contact with his patients who have survived childhood leukemia and cancer. Today close to 80% of childhood cancer patients are survivors.
It is indeed an honor and a privilege to know Dr. Williams. Somehow, the world just seems like a much better place knowing that he is my friend and neighbor.