Mother of Hollywood stars receives award
Helen (Tinch) Williams graduated from the State University of New York at Fredonia in 1960. Fifty-seven years later, on Friday, Williams was standing on a stage inside the Williams Center accepting the Fredonia Alumni Association’s Outstanding Achievement Award.
Although not as famous as her daughter, the actress, singer and author Vanessa Williams — present at the awards ceremony with her actor/singer brother Chris Williams — Helen Williams has left an indelible mark on the landscape of public and higher education.
Williams taught for 37 years in the Ossining public schools as a vocal music educator and as an adjunct professor at Manhattanville College School of Education in Purchase.
While at Fredonia, Mrs. Williams participated in the first decade of Hillman Opera productions. She was cast in the lead role in “Amahl and the Night Visitors” as a freshman, and took a leadership role in many student groups during her undergraduate years, serving as president of the College Choir, Festival Chorus, and Words and Music, and as vice president of the Junior Class.
Williams came to Fredonia as a 16-year old freshman, and, as she recounted during her acceptance speech, “I felt very welcome when I came to this campus. Although there weren’t enough people of color — there were very very few of us — no one ever made me think that I should not participate.
Williams — currently a member of the African American Advisory Board of Historic Hudson Valley — told of a couple occasions where she wasn’t treated so kindly.
As a member of the freshman choir, Williams travelled around the state, and stayed with various host families between performances. While on Long Island, one particular host family asked Williams to stay across the street with a different family.
“My hostess for the weekend said she did not want anyone who looked like me in their house,” she said.
Williams’ choir sisters, in an act of solidarity, left the host family with Williams.
“That made me aware of how special Fredonia was, because there was not anyone here who did not make me feel welcome.”
Williams went on to praise Fredonia’s progress throughout the years up to the present.
“I want you to know how much I appreciate what has happened in Fredonia. When I look around at the campus today, I see so many people who look like me. It’s quite refreshing. When I see the curriculum, it is such a refreshing thing.
“When I arrived, you could be a music teacher, a speech person or an elementary teacher, that was it. What you have in Fredonia today is outstanding. I hope every student that’s here today takes advantage of everything this campus has to offer you, because it’s a lot.
“I’m very happy to receive this award tonight. I’m delighted to be here again.”
Along with the Outstanding Achievement Award, Helen Williams was honored by the Seneca Nation of Indians, who gifted her a ceremonial blanket which symbolizes the embrace of the Seneca Nation, effectively admitting Williams into the Nation’s family.
“I want to thank the Seneca Nation,” Williams said. “I did ask them, when they gave me my gift, if they could also give me a voucher for a lifetime at the slot machine. They told me, ‘oh we’ll work on that.'”
In keeping with her dedication to education, Williams has established the Dr. Richard Sheil Memorial Music Scholarship fund with the Fredonia College Foundation. She and her late husband and Fredonia alumnus, Milton A. Williams Jr., are the parents of two children, Vanessa and Christopher, and four grandchildren. Originally from Buffalo, Mrs. Williams resides in Westchester County. A memoir co-authored with Vanessa, “You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and each Other),” became a New York Times bestselling book.