Panelists share stories with a packed house at Fayetteville Pubic Library

Hoyt Purvis, Lee Williams and J. William Fulbright at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington

The Lee Williams Legacy: Mentor, Adviser, Servant, Friend

Lee Williams

Lee Williams

by multiple authors

­­­­Lee Williams, longtime aide to Sen. J. William Fulbright and former member of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, died June 3, 2015, at age 89. He worked for Fulbright from 1955-1974, first as a legislative assistant and then as an administrative assistant and chief of staff.

“Lee Williams devoted his career to upholding the fundamental principles of the American system of representative government and to improving international understanding,” Hoyt Purvis, professor of journalism and press secretary to Fulbright, wrote in a commentary for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “He spent 25 years as a key figure on Capitol Hill, assisting and advising three of the most influential figures in the history of the U.S. Senate: J. William Fulbright, Mike Mansfield and Robert Byrd.”

Williams attended the University of Arkansas School of Law (LL.B. ’53) after distinguished service in World War II. He and Purvis were both appointed to the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board by President Bill Clinton on Nov. 12, 1993.

"Like many Arkansans, I have long regarded Senator William Fulbright as both a role model and a mentor," Clinton said in the announcement of their appointments. "The Fulbright scholarships are his most lasting achievement. I trust that these four Board members, two of whom served on his staff, will work to preserve his legacy."

Williams served 10 years on the board and was a vigilant and dedicated guardian of the program's principles, providing insightful wisdom in promoting mutual understanding through educational exchange.

“He maintained an active interest in the program following his board service,” Purvis said. “Like Fulbright, he was committed to building a more civilized and humane nation and world."

“Williams told me once that, his bond with Fulbright notwithstanding, he had never regarded himself as the senator’s employee, nor the Senate’s, but the nation’s,” Steve Barnes wrote in an article for the Pine Bluff Commercial. “He did not always approve of his country’s direction, and he had winced at some of Fulbright’s votes. He had served in World War II, which was not won by walking away from the fight. (As was Fulbright, Williams was appalled by Vietnam, a war they believed was not America’s fight).”

Williams’ influence in shaping public policy of the era is often noted in histories of the Vietnam War and other prominent affairs of the time. He was general counsel to the Senate Democratic Policy Committee from 1974-1978 and served as the senior vice president and legislative counsel to the National Retail Federation from 1978-1989. He returned to Fayetteville, where he practiced law and was a fellow in residence at the Fulbright Institute of International Relations in Fulbright College from 1990-1992. In 1992, he joined Public Strategies Inc., a public affairs and consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

“As a news source Williams was helpful, as an interpreter of national politics he was invaluable,” Barnes wrote. “Yet he was discreet; the secrets he took to the beyond are beyond imagining.”

In a story by Bill Bowden that appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, several former Fulbright staff members including Purvis and Marsha Scott, recount memories of working with Williams.

According to Scott, who was hired by Williams, he was responsible for giving Clinton his first job in Washington, and he drafted the legislation that created the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

“Senator Fulbright was a smart man and a good statesman, but Lee made him a great senator,” Scott said. “Lee was his closest confidant and adviser.”

“Lee was also a mentor to some young people who went on to success, including Bill Clinton,” Purvis said.

While Clinton was a student at Georgetown University, Williams hired him to be a messenger and clerk for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, Purvis said. Fulbright was chair of the committee.

Williams told Clinton that there were two part-time jobs available: one paying $5,000, and another paying $3,500. Clinton said he wanted them both.

“Williams responded, ‘You’re the guy I’m looking for. Be here Monday,’” Purvis said.

In 2006, the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service announced the establishment of the Lee Williams Fellowship in Public Service. The fellowship, administered jointly by the Clinton School and Fulbright College, is awarded annually to a University of Arkansas graduate pursuing a master’s degree at the Clinton School. 

“This is a unique student fellowship because of its association with Fulbright College,” said Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School, in fellowship’s announcement. “Because of Lee’s long-term service to the state of Arkansas and his extraordinary contributions to the careers of President Clinton and Senator Fulbright, it is appropriate that a scholarship fund be named in Lee’s honor. This will also be a great way to recruit outstanding Arkansans to the Clinton School.” 

“The people who have contributed to the fellowship know that Lee is one of the most dedicated public servants to ever serve our state and our nation. I hope that even more of Lee’s friends will help build the endowment,” said long-time friend David Lambert. “It is a wonderful project that pays tribute to Lee’s interest in the Clinton School, in Fulbright College and to helping young Arkansans pursue a meaningful career in public service.”

While concerned with the current state of government and politics, Williams was ever the optimist when looking to the future. He considered his role of cultivating the next generation to be every bit as important as that of advising major national leaders. He was a mentor and guide for countless young professionals, especially those from Arkansas, many of whom went on to distinguished careers in public service and public affairs.

“It is hard to believe that it was 48 years ago that I had lunch with Senator J. William Fulbright and Lee Williams, his administrative assistant, in the senators' dining room in Washington,” Purvis wrote. “We mostly discussed the hearings on the Vietnam War Fulbright was conducting and it soon became time for him to return to that duty. After he left, Williams stood and posed a question to me: ‘Well, Purvis, are you going to go to work for us or not?’ … That also marked the beginning of an abiding friendship with Lee, one that continued up to his death.”

Born Floyd Lee Williams II in Denver, Colorado, on July 7, 1925, he was preceded in death by his parents, Floyd Lee Williams and Effie (Lingo) Williams. He is survived by his wife of almost 70 years, Vicky, of Arlington, Virginia; his son, Floyd, and daughter-in-law, Carol; grandchildren Lisa and Carter; and great-grandchildren Leila, Lucas, Jude and Hattie.

Contributions to support the Lee Williams Fellowship may be sent to the Fulbright College Development Office, 525 Old Main, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville 72701.


About the author

This story was constructed from various accounts from 2006-2015, including articles by Steve Barnes for the Pine Bluff Commercial, Bill Bowden and Hoyt Purvis for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and announcements from The White House, Fulbright College, the University of Arkansas School of Law and the Clinton School of Public Service.