Anthony Williams's Winding Journey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 1998; Page C01
LOS ANGELESVirginia Williams remembers the pictures of the toddler who would not speak.
At first, her colleague displayed them with great pride, but as the boy grew older without uttering a word, that joy melted into concern and finally distress.
After Anthony Stephen Eggleton turned 3 years old in silence, his foster parents were ready to put the boy in a home for the mentally retarded.
That grim news collided with the angelic image Williams knew from the pictures. She tried and failed to interest various friends in adopting the boy. Then she decided to do it herself.
"You should have heard my husband when I first brought this up," said Williams, who was pregnant and had two children at the time. "He was like, 'Virginia, have you lost your mind?' But eventually, he came around."
Before long, the boy joined his new family in a black, working-class neighborhood of modest bungalows and neatly clipped lawns just south of downtown Los Angeles. They renamed him Anthony Allen Williams. Eerily quiet and reclusive at first, the boy was soon saying "Mommy" and "Daddy," recognizing written words and playing raucously with his new siblings.
That the 47-year-old Williams stands as a leading candidate for mayor of the nation's capital is itself remarkable. For much of the decade preceding his arrival in Washington, Williams was a nomadic public official who served in a series of administrative posts from Boston to St. Louis.
He came to the District as a presidential appointee in 1993 and spent his first two years here commuting to St. Louis on weekends to see his wife, Diane. He didn't register to vote in the District until June 1996 and has cast a ballot in only one of the five elections held since.
Williams was appointed the District's chief financial officer in 1995, and his job was to help lift the District out of an abyss of debt and mismanagement, a task he pursued with zeal. He slashed budgets, eliminated services, fired longtime employees and demanded management reforms. His work won praise in many quarters but earned him the enmity of those who called him the hatchet man for the congressional overseers who suspended the District's limited home rule.
Cora Masters Barry, the wife of the outgoing mayor, tabbed Williams "Mr. Bow Tie," an appellation that stuck because it speaks as much to what some perceive as his technocrat's mentality and life of privilege as it does to his taste in neck wear.
"People think I'm stuck up, aloof, the whole black bourgeois thing," Williams acknowledged.
His gold-plated resume reinforces that impression. Altar boy. High school student leader. Voted the outstanding military and English student at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School. Member of the Board of Aldermen in New Haven, Conn. Magna cum laude graduate of Yale. Graduate degrees in law and public policy from Harvard. Assistant director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Executive director of the Community Development Agency in St. Louis. Deputy comptroller for Connecticut. Chief financial officer for the 100,000-employee U.S. Department of Agriculture. Man who rescued the District from fiscal oblivion.
But much of Williams's personal history is at odds with the aura of privilege, focused competence and coldblooded efficiency that characterize his public image.
For one, his was hardly a life of luxury. His adoptive parents were career Postal Service employees who raised nine children. Williams's mother still lives in the home that he grew up in, and even a new paint job can't hide the stamp left by all the children: The wood floors are dull, the ceiling tiles are worn, and the hallway that runs off the tiny bedrooms slopes slightly. Still, the house is brightened by dozens of framed photographs of children and grandchildren at family gatherings and graduations.
As a young adult, Williams frequently supported himself with odd jobs and even odder business ventures. Friends and family say that Williams frequently frustrated them because he was easily distracted and often pursued seemingly quixotic endeavors. His pursuit of his first college degree became a 13-year odyssey.
"Tony lived on the fringe for a long time," said his brother Lewis Williams IV, a merchant banker and business professor in Los Angeles. "It wasn't like he led some charmed existence where he was given everything."
As he was growing up, Anthony Williams said, one thing he always was sure of was that he would go to college and make a social contribution somewhere. That message was drummed home by his parents, who scraped together money to send the children to Catholic school and whom Williams credits with having the largest influence on his life.
His late father, Lewis Williams III, was a proud, powerfully built man, a onetime amateur boxer who set a no-nonsense tone around the house. Despite his tough exterior, he frequently took time to read stories to his children, and he never got tired of piling them into his old Ford to go watch planes land at the airport on Sunday afternoons.
But rather than leaving him embittered, that experience seemed to motivate him. "He used to say, 'I put my life on the line for you and my family. I didn't just do it for the white man. I did it for you. And I expect you to make things better,' " Virginia Williams said.
He did his best to see that his children had a good life. Through the years, he rose from a clerk to a local superintendent of customer service for the Postal Service. He led his family on cross-country camping trips. There were modeling classes or piano lessons for the children. He organized football and baseball leagues in the neighborhood.
Virginia Williams was no less committed to her family. A warm, extroverted woman, Williams worked days as a postal clerk and later a foreman while her husband worked nights. An opera singer who performed off camera in the movie versions of "Carmen Jones" and "Porgy and Bess," she bypassed a real attempt at the big time to raise her family. She says it was her idea to adopt Anthony and take in two other children who were not her own. She was a community activist who pressed for parks and recreation centers. She once ran for the Los Angeles City Council, finishing 16th out of a field of 32.
"Tony told me, 'Momma, you can't be a politician because you always want to please people,' " she said.
The comment was typical Anthony Williams. From his earliest days at Holy Name of Jesus elementary school, he could be as straightforward as he was bright. He usually received good grades but was notorious for drifting off into private thoughts in class.
By the time he became a student at mostly white Loyola High School, he had established himself as a bona fide leader, winning election to class offices, attracting giggling crowds for the impromptu skits he would perform mimicking teachers or illustrating Bible stories and catching the eye of the nuns who thought he had the makings of a priest.
The idea of the priesthood was one Williams seriously considered until his father helped convince him that his calling was elsewhere. The problem then was that Williams had no idea what he wanted to do.
After high school, Williams enrolled at Santa Clara University, where he promptly immersed himself in all manner of student activity. It was 1969, a time when Vietnam War protests enveloped college campuses across the country, and Williams was caught in the swirl.
He would frequently head to Berkeley or San Francisco to join demonstrations in which people would condemn the war and burn their draft cards. "I might have burned mine," Williams said, "but I probably didn't know where it was."
While at Santa Clara, Williams also worked in an organization that aided draft dodgers who had moved to Canada. In addition, he was elected president of his sophomore class. But academically, things went awry: In two years of college, he said, he completed maybe a year's worth of credits.
After two years of war protests in college, he went home. And before long, he joined the Air Force. He said he did it to help bring some order to his life.
His best friend at the time, Theodore W. McDonald, now a court clerk in Los Angeles, said Williams appeared to join on the spur of the moment. "I was getting drafted, so I decided to enlist in the Air Force. I . . . called Tony and told him what I'm doing," McDonald said. "The next thing I knew, we were joining on the buddy system."
The move stunned many who knew Williams well, although it made his war-veteran father proud. His brother Lewis said: "I can still picture Tony coming into my frat house [at Stanford University]. Here he was, head of the draft resistance unit or whatever at college, and he was in full Air Force uniform. I couldn't believe it."
In the Air Force, Williams volunteered for Vietnam but was kept in the country to work as an administrative aide. He then sought an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy to pursue a long-held dream of becoming a pilot. But he was sent instead to its preparatory school, a consequence of his poor academic record at Santa Clara.
Williams excelled at the preparatory school and won an appointment to the academy. But by then, he had soured on the Air Force. Eligible for an early discharge, he nonetheless sought to get out as a conscientious objector, saying the service conflicted with his religious and moral views.
"I wanted to make a statement," he said.
He filed a 35-page application buttressed by 60 letters he solicited in support of his application. One of the letters came from his father, who was furious with his son for asking for conscientious objector status. In it, the elder Williams bitterly told the Air Force that Tony may have suffered a serious head injury as a child that had affected him since.
"It was an ugly letter," Williams said, noting that his father's speculation was wrong. "He basically said that if that had not happened, I would not be a continued disappointment and [screw]-up."
"Tony, he just likes having different experiences," explained his sister Virginia Williams II, who lives outside Los Angeles. "He likes things varied. He is always interested in trying different things."
Eventually, Williams decided to go back to school. Lewis convinced him to stop at Yale on a drive between Massachusetts and New Jersey. One conversation with an admissions officer convinced him to apply. He was accepted promptly.
In 1975, he enrolled at Yale using his veteran's benefits to help pay the bill. He did well in classes and spent much of his free time counseling truants and working in other youth programs. But after two years, he interrupted his schooling to launch a business that sold antique maps. His parents bailed him out of debt from that endeavor.
By 1979, Williams was back in school, even as he worked as a banquet waiter and pizza deliveryman. That year, he also won a seat on the New Haven Board of Aldermen, where he served until 1983. Williams graduated from Yale in 1982 and by that time had finally set his life on a more linear course.
"There were so many people telling me, 'You have to live up to your potential,' " Williams said. "It got through."
By 1987, he had received his Harvard degrees and was into the series of jobs that led to the District.
"When I was younger, I would have an idea and stop and do it," Williams said. "I'm still willing to take risks, but now I know how to manage them better."
Anthony A. Williams
Born: July 28, 1951, in Los Angeles.
Education: Graduated from Loyola High School, Yale University, Kennedy School of Government and Harvard University School of Law.
Home: Foggy Bottom.
Family: Married to Diane Simmons Williams. They have a 23-year-old daughter, Asantewa Foster.
Little-known fact: He tried to use sterilized bugs rather than pesticides to launch an organic crop-dusting business. It never got off the ground.
This is the last of four reports profiling the leading candidates in the Sept. 15 Democratic primary election for mayor.
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