Williams takes Rackham stage for 'last lecture'

Even as Ralph Williams said goodbye to members of the U-M community this week, it was in the style many have come to know from the beloved professor: a larger-than-life delivery filled with exuberant messages about life, love and sense of self.
(Photo by David Boyle)

"Live who you are, speak truth to power, be alert on your watch," Williams said, with his characteristically forceful delivery, lamenting that his generation had not done so on "my watch."

On Tuesday, Williams delivered to a standing-room-only crowd at Rackham Auditorium a talked dubbed his "last lecture," in the tradition of the Golden Apple Award. Williams, who is retiring this semester after 39 years at U-M, is the first recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Golden Apple Award from the student organization Hillel. The popular professor specializes in medieval and Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, literary theory, comparative literature and Biblical studies.

When Williams made his entrance onto the stage, he immediately engaged in his characteristic theatrical style of speaking, seamlessly interweaving transitions to poetry, theater and, in one case, song. He engaged the audience as he reflected on his time at the university and life in general.

In addition to lavishing praise on his students and colleagues, Williams, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of English, quoted authors from William Shakespeare to Primo Levi and Toni Morrison.

The evening included a video tribute and introductions by Williams' friends, including Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs and senior counselor to the president.

Williams, who in 2008 was named a Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year, praised the university for the resources and opportunities it provided him.

"You can be free from, but you are no longer free to," Williams said. "And it is this great institution that has given me you, and this stage, and the time to speak, and I shall miss it and you."

As has been the case throughout his career, Williams expressed hope that his teaching continued to make an impact on students long after they left U-M. "So it is my hope that when memories of my class fade there may still remain within you a connection with this place, and, dare I hope, with me," Williams said.

Marianna Anderle de Sylor, a former student of Williams and current graduate student in the School of Public Health, attended the lecture and said the professor will remain "a magical force, present still when he is not here."

"Professor Williams remains an inspirational academic force. He fluidly introduces new material and synthesizes entire disciplines during his lectures, which are an exotic mixture of dialogue and performance," Anderle de Sylor said.

Williams concluded his lecture with a poetry reading before exiting the stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.