Monday, June 18, 2018

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Leon Williams received an honorary doctorate degree in human relations from SDSU in 2007. (Credit: Brooke Ruth/KPBS) Leon Williams received an honorary doctorate degree in human relations from SDSU in 2007. (Credit: Brooke Ruth/KPBS)

Lifelong Learning

Leon Williams, the first black member of the San Diego City Council, continues his passion for learning.
By Steve Dolan

At the age of 94, the first black member in the history of the San Diego City Council has decided to go back to school at San Diego State University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

Leon Williams, who joined the City Council in 1969, has attended six classes and special events through OLLI, which offers university-quality courses in state-of-the-art classrooms for adults ages 50 and better. There are no tests, grades or exams - just the thrill of learning with like-minded peers.

Known for his soft voice, trademark smile, and a very friendly demeanor, Williams has taken a variety of programs through OLLI: “The Changing Face and Landscape of Media,” “Nutrition and Health: Eat for Maximum Vigor,” “Living Forever,” “A Social Primer: Social Media Made Easy,” “Culture and Cuisine of Cuba,” and “The Philosophy of Death.”

“It’s been very interesting,” Williams said. “I have never stopped learning. I listen to the radio, watch TV, and read. Going back to class has been a good thing for me.”

This fall, OLLI is offering an exciting and thought-provoking lineup of courses, lectures, workshops, book clubs, Edventures and events, including the debut of “Conversations Worth Having — Being Mortal: Perspectives on Death and Dying.”

“As humans, we haven’t discovered all we can about the universe,” Williams said. “What else can we learn as a species and to be better occupants? The world needs us to be good as individuals.”

Williams, who graduated from San Diego State College (now SDSU) in 1950 with a bachelor's degree in psychology, has long been a student of human behavior. He received a graduate certificate in 1957 from SDSU in social work administration and continued to be involved with the university over the years as a lifetime member of the SDSU Alumni Association.

In 2007, he received an honorary doctorate degree in human relations from SDSU. Four years later, the SDSU Transit Center was dedicated in his name for his tireless work as a member of the Metropolitan Transit System’s Board of Directors for 30 years. Williams retired in 2006 after being board president for 12 years.

“SDSU is where I received my college degree,” Williams said. “I appreciate what I learned there. I’ve always had good feelings about SDSU.”

Following college, Williams was employed as a social worker, administrator at the county Sheriff’s department, and a director at the Urban League. During his time with the Urban League, he had numerous conversations with then-San Diego Mayor Frank Curran about what could be accomplished to make San Diego a better place to live and improve race relations.

When a city council seat became available in 1968, Williams was among 31 applicants for the position. He recalled being chosen by Curran and the council primarily for his efforts in trying to improve community relations.

“I was under a lot of pressure when they appointed me,” Williams said. “I had a lot of ideas for San Diego. I didn’t want to just represent blacks and the underprivileged, I was there for everybody.”

After serving on the City Council until 1982, Williams became the first black person to serve on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. He retired from the county in 1994. Later this month, he’ll be honored by the San Diego Rotary as Mr. San Diego.

For Williams, age is just a number. He still works out each day, frequently doing so at a local YMCA. He turns to OLLI for his mental exercise.

“It helps me stay in touch,” Williams said. “It opens my mind to new ideas and discoveries.”