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Autographed History: A Q&A with Agnes Neill Williams

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Agnes Williams and granddaughter
Agnes Neill Williams (right) with
hergranddaughter, Adair Bender ’12,
on hergraduation day from
Holy Cross

There are signed pieces from President Jefferson and President Lincoln. Personal thank you notes from President Johnson and the First Lady. A handwritten acknowledgement from President Clinton. And letters from Abigail Adams, Alexander Solzehenitsyn, and Mother Teresa.

These are among the 69 framed items that recently arrived at the College of the Holy Cross as part of a deeply historic collection illuminating significant moments in U.S. and world history.

The magnificent collection, which will be available to faculty and students for research, is a gift from Agnes Neill Williams. Mrs. Williams has honored her late-husband Edward Bennett Williams ’41 P83, H63’s devotion to Holy Cross since his passing in 1988. Mr. Williams — or Ed, as he was known — was hailed as one of the finest trial attorneys in the nation, and advised several U.S. presidents and represented many notable (and notorious) clients throughout his career. He balanced his career with a passion for sports — owning both the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Orioles — and a passion for Holy Cross. Mr. Williams made time to serve on the Holy Cross Board of Trustees from 1976–1988, counsel those overseeing the Holy Cross athletic programs and plan and implement the renovations of Fitton Field.

Mrs. Williams has made a number of transformational contributions to Holy Cross. Some were made in memory of her husband, while others were made in support of programs about which she is personally passionate, such as the College’s Pre-Law Program that will continue to provide opportunities to generations of students interested in practicing law as she and her husband did. She also established the Williams Center for Writing and Speaking and the Williams Faculty Fellows, which extends her very generous support of faculty over the years provided by a number of Agnes N. Williams faculty endowed funds.

The Agnes N. and Edward Bennett Williams legacy has become a part of the Holy Cross landscape with Williams Hall, which houses more than 200 seniors. And the Edward Bennett Williams Memorial scholarship, established in 2001 by Mrs. Williams and a number of close friends, has benefitted hundreds of Holy Cross students.

In addition to her philanthropy, Mrs. Williams has generously given her time to the College, serving two terms on the Board of Trustees until 1998 and, currently, as a member of the Holy Cross Advisory Board. Mrs. Williams is a member of the College’s Cornerstone Society, and a lifetime member of the President’s Council. Last year, she was awarded the P. Kevin Condron Class of 1967 Award for Trustee Service at Holy Cross, which recognizes outstanding leadership, meritorious service, extraordinary commitment and significant contributions to the College.

“The collection provides students with the unique opportunity to experience history through primary sources,” says Edward O’Donnell ’86, associate professor of history. “These letters give us an insider’s view of what was happening at the time. There is a real difference, a humility almost, when holding a piece of history, rather than reading it on a screen.”

“This is an impressive collection of important figures in U.S. history over time, from the witchcraft indictment to Soviet dissidence,” adds Stephanie Yuhl, professor of history. “It is a wonderful trove for students to access.”

Why is the collection important to you?

I love history. I was a history major when I was an undergraduate student at the College of New Rochelle. I especially enjoy reading biographies, particularly those with letters in them. There is so much we can learn from letters — the language,the society, the daily lives of people at the time.

Abigail Adams
First Lady Abigail Adams

Quotations from the letters are always the most interesting to me. I have a multi-volume biography of George Washington, which is fascinating. It is written from the history found in his letters.

How did the collection start?

My husband, Ed, was always interested in history. He started collecting historic letters, and he also saved personal letters that were meaningful to him. When we moved to our home in Potomac in 1972, we quickly realized we had more display space throughout our home for framed items. It was then that we decided to have the letters and documents framed.

President Thomas Jefferson

We displayed the framed items on the walls in our long hallway and hung several in the family room. We didn’t think to hang them in groupings, such as by year or decade. We were practical and hung them on the basis of space we had available and what looked good together. As the collection grew, it really was a question of where to fit which one according to shape and size.

Which items in the collection mean the most to you?
Which were most meaningful to Mr. Williams?

Ed particularly liked the three Thomas Jefferson items: the July 17, 1779, letter to Richard Henry Lee, then-Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress; a land grant from 1801of 340 acres in Ohio Territory to John Scott, when Jefferson was president; and a letter from 1822 to Judge Spencer Roane expressing concern for Roane’s health. Ed was proud of those. There are also letters to Ed from Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson that meant a great deal to him. Ed knew them personally, and these letters reflect that.

President Bill Clinton

I am partial to the Clinton letters from 1998 and 1999. These days, with autopens and secretaries who sign for their superiors, many presidential signatures are not authentic. When we had these items appraised to see if the signatures were genuine, I was pleased to find out they were originals.

I also like the Abigail Adams letter written in 1796 to Elbridge Gerry, a gentleman who signed the Declaration of Independence and was a Governor and Vice President. In that letter, Abigail Adams urges politicians to pay attention to the rights of women. Reading through that original text, you get a feeling that if she were alive today, she may have been president instead of her husband!

What is your hope for the collection?

I have two hopes for this collection.

President Richard Nixon

First, I hope that the collection will inspire an interest in history for Holy Cross students, and encourage them to read and research even more about a period in our nation’s story. I was inspired in a similar way. When I was in college, one professor had us read a biography of Charlemagne, written by a courtier. Knowing that the biographer knew his subject personally made the book that much more interesting. That era came alive for me. I have always thought that high school students would enjoy history more if history books had more quotations, and were written by or included stories from people who were actually there and lived through the periods of time about which the book was written. Primary documents — like the original letters in the collection — bring the historical figure alive for the reader. And with the signatures that these letters have, that makes them so much more personal.

Second, I hope this collection inspires similar gifts to the College. Many people have collections of items that are meaningful to them, such as art, sculpture, rare books, fine furnishings or unique or precious valuables that they might not know what to do with. Things that enhance the mission of the  College would be beneficial for Holy Cross to receive and use for scholarship, research and study — or display in key locations  for students, professors, and visitors to campus. I look forward to hearing how the College uses this collection to inspire and teach the campus community.

With so many deserving institutions in the world, why have you been so devoted to Holy Cross? How is Holy Cross deserving of this collection?

Ed loved Holy Cross so much. Before he died, Ed told me several times that he would like this collection to go to Holy Cross one day. I replied that I would be delighted to donate the collection with the hope that it would bring history alive for the students in a way most of them had not experienced. When I decided to downsize and sell our larger home last year, I knew it was the right time to contact Holy Cross to see if it might be somethingof interest.

As I said, Holy Cross meant so much to my husband, and it means so much to me. Our son Ned ’83 and granddaughter Adair Bender ’12 both graduated from Holy Cross. I have a lovely photo of my granddaughter and myself on my office desk, which was taken on her graduation day. I look at it every day. She was the happiest and proudest graduate.

We are all truly delighted that Holy Cross has honored my husband’s intentions, and that his treasured collection will inspire future generations to explore history.