Joe Williams: A Legend Revered

Posted on Feb 10, 2017

Joe Williams with Congressman Jim Costa and Brian AngusVisionary, innovative, accomplished, a brilliant negotiator, fiercely determined, ahead of his time, and above all a loving husband, father, grandfather and mentor to thousands – that was Joe Williams. He commanded attention when he entered the room, always confident, yet humble. He was loyal, trusted, driven, yet kind. He was the consummate businessman but in every deal insisted it promote fairness, equal opportunity, and improved conditions for those less fortunate. He was a leader for all times, all occasions; a player’s coach when that was needed, a firm, uncompromising advocate when that was needed. He attracted talent, groomed leaders, and motivated others to join the many noble, just, and equitable causes he pledged himself to.

No challenge deterred him. Former Mayor Humphrey who served a term with Joe on the Fresno City Council, remembered Joe’s advice: You’ve got to know what you feel in your heart and your gut. And if you know something is right, you need to do it. It was real human wisdom not just political wisdom. Mayor Whitehurst, who also served with Joe in City government, said of Joe, he did as much as anyone I know, building bridges and getting things done in our town, especially on behalf of people in need. Mayor Brand who also represented District 6, as Joe did years earlier on the City Council, remembered Joe as a visionary who overcame discrimination and dedicated his career to transforming our city into a place where opportunity is available to everyone. 

It would be hard for Joe to imagine the impact he has had on young men and women throughout this community and beyond, those that were fortunate to get to know him and work with him. Many of today’s local leaders are a product of Joe’s mentorship, his guidance, wisdom, coaching, and love. They coveted the impact he had on their lives. Here are some of their comments: 

Joe Williams had a huge impact on my professional career and personal life. For that I will be forever grateful. I appreciated Joe’s amazing ability to connect with people, show genuine concern and interest, and always mix words of wisdom with optimism and love! Truly bigger than life, a visionary leader, charismatic person, of the people and for the people. 

Joe quietly amassed some of this community’s highest honors reflecting not only his business success, but his character, inspiration, and community investment. 

  •  Leon S. Peters Award for lifetime achievement in business and community service (2010) 
  •  President’s Medal of Distinction, the highest non-degree award given (President Welty)  
  •  Fresno City College Distinguished Alumnus Award (2003)   
  •  One of 100 Stars celebrated on the occasion of Fresno City College’s centennial year.
  •  California State University, Fresno Outstanding Alumnus Award (2006)
  •  Fresno Bee’s Business of the Year Award (RHA)
  •  PG&E Minority Supplier of the Year (RHA)
  •  First 5 Fresno County Family Friendly Business Award (RHA) 

He served on numerous boards and committees, including: 

  •  First African-American elected to the Fresno City Council serving two terms from 1977-85
  •  Regional leadership post with the League of California Cities
  •  Board – National Community Action Agency Executive Directors Association
  •  Board - Cal-Neva (California-Nevada Community Action Network)
  •  Board – Community Medical Centers 
  •  Board – Fresno State University Foundation 
  •  Founding Board Member – Premier Valley Bank 
  •  Board – Fresno Chamber of Commerce 
  •  Chair – African-American Chamber of Commerce

Joe Williams began his decorated career with Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, serving as its longest-tenured Executive Director from 1970-93. When Joe left, the agency was the largest of local non-profits and fifth largest of the nation’s 1100 community action agencies. He grew Fresno EOC’s budget from $1.8 million to $37 million with 35 programs and 670 staff serving 130,000 low-income residents annually. Among the many programs Joe launched were the Sanctuary, a shelter for runaway minors that bears his name; the Local Conservation Corps; regional Transit and Food service enterprises; emergency energy assistance and weatherization services; Palm Village family homeless shelter; Project Pride which became the impetus for the founding of the School of Unlimited Learning (SOUL) Charter School; and the savvy acquisition of the Fresno Executive Plaza demonstrating his early commitment to the revitalization of Fresno’s downtown. 

Joe’s Community Action colleagues revered his contributions and commitment to the national network. Lois Carson, long-time director of the Riverside, California agency described Joe as a support system. He’s a community action icon. About 700 of Williams’ peers, admirers and politicians joined Carson to bid him well at the time of his retirement from Fresno EOC. Williams humbly responded: I was deeply moved, it means a lot when your peers and co-workers talk about what you mean to them. Williams was also credited as a pioneer in economic development, forming alliances with major utility companies, resulting in contracts with Community Action Agencies for weatherization services. Ernest Oliver, head of the San Francisco EOC lauded Joe, he never hesitated to move to higher heights to help community action agencies. Cloyd Phillips of Community Services of Washoe County, Nevada lamented Joe’s retirement from community action: a tremendous void will result in Williams’ retirement. Joe wanted to be remembered as someone who cared and desired to do something different, to remember that I cared about anyone who walked through the door and said, “help me.” Brian Angus, Fresno EOC’s current CEO echoed, each day I awaken to the honor of sitting where Joe Williams once sat, hoping in meaningful ways to carry the torch of the man that built this agency, that established its pedigree and distinction as one of the finest agencies in the nation! 

Joe Williams followed a legendary career in community action with stellar leadership of Richard Heath and Associates (RHA) where he was CEO for ten years, then President/Shareholder until recently when health concerns prevented him from continuing. Joe grew RHA from 50 employees to 350 at several offices statewide. Through Joe’s guidance, RHA ramped up to provide over one million low-income residents with energy services each year. 

Joe’s legacy lives on in the lives of thousands who emulate his values, treasure his counsel, and have adopted his passion, work ethic, and thirst for justice, equity, and opportunity for all. 

Thank you Joe for showing us how we ought to live in this world, for urging us towards bold initiatives and solutions, and for your unconditional love for family, friends, and strangers.