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A Dream No Longer Deferred: LeMoyne Owen ‘forgives’ a long-forgotten debt so 79-year-old can march after a 51-year wait

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Richard “Dickie” Williams finally received his degree from LeMoyne Owen College in 2024, after a $50 ‘debt’ from 1973 was cleared. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/Tri-State Defender)

It was 1973 when Richard “Dickie” Williams took his final exams at LeMoyne-Owen College. By that point, he’d completed all his course work, despite having to leave school for a one-year tour in Vietnam. But he hadn’t paid off his bill with the college.

And that meant he never received his degree, never enjoyed his commencement. But that all changed on May 11, when Richard Williams received his degree in elementary education from LeMoyne Owen College – a fresh faced college grad, ready to embark upon life at the tender age of 79.

“I’m all retired,” Williams chuckled when asked about his next career move.

It’s a winding road for a man whose initial reason for going to what was then Owen College had little to do with getting an education. Like a lot of young men in the 1960s, he was trying to stay away from the combat zone.

“I ain’t gonna lie: I went to Owen to dodge the draft,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to Vietnam. Too many of my friends getting killed over there. My brother had been there and just got back home. So, I didn’t really want to go, but they got me anyway.”

Williams’ younger brother is John Gary Williams, former singer with The Mad Lads, a 1960s soul group signed to Stax. John Gary’s music career was interrupted when he had to go to Vietnam, where he witnessed horrors and death.

“From what I understand, he said, ‘Dickie gonna get killed over there,’” Richard said. “I didn’t really think about that. I knew it was dangerous, but I always trusted God. So I just took my chance.”

Williams went to Vietnam in 1968, survived it, then returned home to Memphis where he resumed his education at the now-merged LeMoyne Owen College in 1969. Four years later, with all his coursework complete, he was ready to graduate. But there was one problem.

He owed the school $50 – which doesn’t sound like a lot, but for comparison’s sake, consider: Gasoline was about 39 cents a gallon; movie tickets were about $1.50 and record albums on vinyl cost about $5.00. 

“It was a misunderstanding about that $50,” he said. “I had all the credits to march. I forgot the lady’s name who prevented me from marching. But she was just doing her job, I guess. I hold no malice against her.”

With a wife and family, Williams just went on with his life. He tucked his academic papers away and went on to have a 33-year career with the EEOC, including working as an investigator. He still got to feed his inner teacher as a mentor and community volunteer. Set to turn 80 in November, he was fine.

Fast forward to earlier this spring. After coming to campus to hear a high school classmate speak, Williams’ niece took him for a conversation at the registrar’s office. 

“She talked to this young lady and told her, “My uncle had enough credits to graduate but I think he owes $50.’ The young lady said, ‘Let me see what we can do.’

Later, she called Williams back and asked if he had any proof of his claim. And, of course, he did.

“I kept those papers. I don’t know why,” he said, before correcting himself. “Well, I do now, but back then, I don’t know why I was keeping all those papers. And when I showed it to her, she said, ‘We don’t need anything else. You got the proof.’

“And that’s how all of this got started.”

Several weeks later, Williams finally marched across the stage to receive his degree — a dream no longer deferred. So what are his post-baccalaureate plans? Start teaching? Maybe grad school?

“No sir, I’m good right here,” he said with a laugh. “Like I said, I’m retired.”

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