On Eagle's Wings: A Tribute
Paul Gullixson, Press Democrat, November 30, 2014
Let me start by saying that campaign consultant Herb Williams and I often don’t agree on Santa Rosa politics. This newspaper has not always endorsed the candidates he has backed. And we have not always seen eye to eye on the ballot measures he has pushed — or, in the case of Santa Rosa’s Measure O, how they have played out. (We’re still debating that one.)
But there’s no disputing what turns the gears inside the heart and head of Herb Williams — and there’s no disputing that they’re in the right place.
Williams is old school, a guy who believes in such things as honor, loyalty and the need to recognize those who have helped you in life by “paying it forward.” Many in the community know this about him, as shown by the size of the crowd that filled the tables and lined the walls of the Fountaingrove Conference Center on Nov. 21 to honor Williams as he received a rare award. The gathering included business executives, non-profit leaders and past and present elected officials including Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley, former City Council members Janet Condron and Jane Bender, District Attorney Jill Ravitch and former Rep. Doug Bosco.
But before I explain what that was all about, it’s important to describe what happened more than 60 years ago in Dover, Delaware. As Williams explains it in his matter-of-fact way, his father was an alcoholic and was abusive. “He beat me a lot,” Williams said. “He had to take his anger out on someone.” His target was usually his son.
But Herb’s options to get away from home were limited. “There were two gangs in my area, and there was scouting,” he said. “I heard if you joined Boy Scouts and became an Eagle Scout you could do anything that an eagle could do.”
So he did. He worked hard, earned scouting’s highest ranking and did what eagles do. He flew away.
“I became an Eagle Scout at 16, and four months later I ran away from home,” he said.
He joined the military, earned his high school diploma as well as a college degree. Later he began working on political campaigns, a career that brought him to Sonoma County in 1991. But he never lost his appreciation for the Boy Scouts, which he credited with saving his life.
“Much has changed since 1952” when he left home, Williams told the Santa Rosa crowd on Nov. 21. “But my compass was set.”
Williams’ involvement in scouting elevated him to high levels within the organization, resulting in what he considers one of his greatest election accomplishments. In May 2013, he was a delegate at the Boy Scouts of America national meeting in Grapevine, Texas where, despite still recovering from pneumonia, he campaigned for and voted in favor of lifting a ban on openly gay youth. Despite great debate, the motion carried.
Williams said the first person he called afterward was his friend Jill Ravitch. “As I was telling her that we had won the vote, I started to cry,” Williams said. “I didn’t realize how important it was to me. I just felt so good about it.” As he noted, “Scouting is better for it.”
But it’s clear one of his proudest moments centered around the day his son Jesse told him he wanted to become an Eagle Scout. He was 16 at the time, the same age his father was when he fled home. Despite his late start, Jesse, a student at Santa Rosa High School, showed remarkable drive and earned his Eagle within hours of his 18th birthday. Moved by the experience of visiting Ground Zero of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Jesse joined the Army following high school. After his first tour in Iraq, he met Sonya, who would soon become his wife. In May 2006, his daughter, Amaya, was born.
Williams laughs with pride as he talks about his son. “I don’t know what it was. When Jesse would walk into a room, he would just light it up,” said Williams. “I tell people he got that from his mother because I make people frown when I walk into the room.”
During Christmas in 2006, Jesse was able to spend two weeks of R&R with his family. It would be their last memories together.
On April 8, 2007, Jesse Williams was killed during combat operations in Baqubah, Iraq. With his squadron pinned down by enemy fire, Jesse moved to high ground to draw fire. His entire squad made it to safety. Jesse did not.
Part of Jesse’s Eagle Scout project was to help clean up the rural cemetery at Santa Rosa Memorial Park — near where he is now buried.
Despite the loss of his son, Herb Williams has not stopped giving back. He’s a board member of the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts and the Sonoma County Family Justice Center. He’s a past president of the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County and of the Redwood Empire Council for Boy Scouts. He’s also a former member of the national Alzheimer’s Association board.
In short, that’s what this gathering on Nov. 21 was all about. For all of his professional work and contributions, Williams was awarded the National Outstanding Eagle Scout Award, an honor that has gone to fewer than 230 people nationwide so far. He is the first from the North Bay to receive it.
Williams knew about the recognition in advance. What he didn’t know was that both his daughter and daughter-in-law would be flying in from out of town to be with him when he received it. He also didn’t know that the award for this region would have a new name — the Jesse Williams National Outstanding Eagle Scout Award.
“We couldn’t think of a better way to honor Herb than by honoring Jesse, “ said Ray Leonard, executive vice president of the Redwood Empire Council of Boy Scouts. “He was the role model of Eagle Scouts.”
As Williams stepped to the podium that Friday night, he was overcome with emotion. Many in the audience were. He kept his remarks brief, saying he was simply blown away. He ended on this note: “If anyone had helped you in a time of need — pay it forward.”