In Memoriam: T.O. Williams III ’59

T.O. Williams III ’59

T.O. Williams III ’59

By Lt. Col. Gary Lerch ’72, U.S. Army Reserve (retired)

Col. Thomas Owen “T.O.” Williams III ’59 died March 10. He was 80.

Williams led the Highty-Tighties as drum major in 1959, his senior year, and remained dedicated to Virginia Tech and the Corps of Cadets throughout his life.

After graduation, he commissioned into the U.S. Air Force as a pilot. He served for 27 years, and his command positions included flying tours during the Vietnam War, as well as deputy commander for operations of the 1st Special Operations Wing in Hurlburt Field, Florida; the senior U.S. defense representative in Khartoun, Sudan; and commander at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

In 2007, I was a member of the Virginia Corps of Cadets Alumni Association Inc. (VTCAA), but my participation was limited to attendance to the two meetings per year. One day, my phone rang at work at the Defense Logistics Agency and the conversation went something like this:


“Gary Lerch, this is T.O. Williams!”

“Hi, T.O.”

“Gary, I am calling to inform that you are the unanimous choice of the VTCCA Executive Committee to be vice chairman!” Then he quickly added — almost under his breath – “Of course, you realize that this means that you soon become our next chairman.”

“T.O. – this is quite an honor, but I don’t think that most of those folks even know me.”


 “Well, that question did come up, but they said that if it is OK with me, then it is OK with them!”

And so began my close involvement with the VTCCA Inc., for which I am sincerely indebted to T.O.  I had the great fortune to work closely with a host of great Corps alumni from many different classes and experiences. For this, I am forever grateful.

More importantly, the conversation is an example of his personality and his absolute enthusiasm for all things Virginia Tech and Corps of Cadets.

A bagpiper led Williams’ funeral procession
A Highty-Tighty alumnus bagpiper, Heather Pastva ‘04, led Williams’ funeral procession at Westview Cemetery in Blacksburg, Virginia.

T.O. Williams first arrived in Blacksburg in the fall of 1955.

A scrappy kid from Portsmouth, Virginia, he took offense to being called a rat by an upperclassman and unwisely responded with a much stronger epithet. Despite the rocky start, he excelled as a cadet, and especially as a member of the Highty-Tighties.

Upon retirement from the Air Force in 1986, like many of his peers, he considered becoming an airline pilot, but his wife, the late Frances Shealor Williams, being a native of Blacksburg, informed him that, after following him all over the world, it was her turn to pick their home. So, to the great fortune of Virginia Tech, they returned to Blacksburg. 

Williams, having proven himself to be a highly skilled combat pilot and leader, was about to demonstrate skills in fund raising and service to others.

Williams became involved with the Corps staff and fellow alumni to save the Corps. A key element of that effort was raising funds for Emerging Leader Scholarships, which reversed the declining enrollment and ensured that the Corps would survive and grow. 

He became a university employee and continued to fundraise for the Corps. He was also engaged in promotional efforts for both the Highty-Tighties and the German Club.  His crowning achievement was to raise funds for a new alumni center. The Holtzman Alumni Center and Skelton Conference Center is a testimony to his fundraising talent and the generosity of numerous alumni. The facility is a living and lasting legacy to Williams.

Williams’ success can be attributed to his outgoing personality, his strength of character, his infectious love of Virginia Tech and the Corps, and his innate ability to make everyone feel special when talking to him. 

His years of experience and network of friends and contacts made him an outstanding mentor to those who followed him. He was always very supportive and could provide gentle, but firm, guidance as to how to proceed.

His passing leaves us with sadness and a sense of loss; but we are also comforted by a richness of memories, jokes, stories, and sage advice. We will miss him but are extremely fortunate to have served with him.