WFU Department of Physics Wake Forest University


Wake Forest Physics
Nationally recognized for teaching excellence;
internationally respected for research advances;
a focused emphasis on interdisciplinary study and close student-faculty collaboration.

In Memoriam – Professor Emeritus Jack Williams

Jack WilliamsOn Saturday, November 8th, 2015 we lost a great leader and colleague, Professor of Physics Jack Williams. Jack began his carreer at Wake Forest in 1958 as an Assistant Professor, and rose to full Professor in 1965. His area of research was condensed matter physics, and he served as Chair of the Physics Department for 16 years (1974-1990). During the 1980's, Jack persistently sought funding from the Olin Foundation to build a new Physics building, and he eventually succeeded, and the Physics building (Olin Physical Laboratory) was completed in December 1989. He was instrumental in moving the Department of Physics to a higher level when he got the university to approve the doctoral program in 1986. Jack retired in 1999, after 41 years of excellent service to students, faculty, and the whole community of Wake Forest University. We are both lucky, and proud, to have had Jack as a friend, colleague, and leader.

The following is shared by Professor Rick Matthews.

On November 8, I lost my mentor, colleague, and friend, George P. (Jack) Williams. His wife Mitzi asked me to share some of my memories at his funeral. While gathering my thoughts, I came across the letter I wrote to him upon his retirement. Nothing captures my memories and thoughts better than what I was able to tell him in this letter. This is what I read at his funeral. Please let me share it with you here. -- Rick Matthews
April 11, 1999
Dear Jack,
Jack Williams Painting
I believe it was twenty years ago this week that I came down to Wake Forest from Washington for an interview. I appreciate you giving me a chance at my dream job. I knew I had a special chairman the first day at work: you took me over to the ticket office and got me great season tickets for football season. (This, of course, was the season we went to the Tangerine Bowl.) I knew right away that you took more than a professional interest in your faculty.
Thank you so much for being my mentor the past twenty years. On that same first day on the job, you told me you expected me to win the Excellence in Teaching Award. That was pretty intimidating, but then you prepared me to win it. You are the one who taught me how to teach. You shared your experiences with me, told me what demos to use and how, and taught me how to connect with the students. You brought me from a novice who entered the classroom worried about having a stuttering attack to someone who could actually win the award. I owe that award to you.
You also encouraged me in my research and made sure that I had the resources I needed. You encouraged us to go for our own supercomputer, which revolutionized the computational research in the department. Nothing did more for our research than getting the Ph.D. program going and winning Olin Physical Laboratory. I was on the long range planning committee that did its work as we were hoping to launch the Ph.D. program. Your presentation before the committee was masterful. When the committee met at Camp Carraway to formulate its priorities, the Ph.D. in Physics was immediately chosen as top priority for the university. I did not even have to argue for it! You had done the work when you came before the committee.
Running a Ph.D. program in Salem Hall would have been challenging, of course. The graduate student office area behind room 21 could only be reached by going the length of the long and skinny demo room. The grad students nicknamed that office "Hell." The solution was simple: you got us another building. When no one outside the department thought we had a chance, you pushed for it. I knew that if you ever had the opportunity to make a personal pitch for a building to the Olin Foundation, we would win it. I was right.
Watching you design the building was a joy. You created the most functional physics building I have seen. Olin works incredibly well. Perhaps the best indicator of that is how "at home" we all felt from the time we moved in. It seems like we have always been here, like we were born here. Everything is where it should be, and one cannot imagine it being anywhere else.
Your most remarkable accomplishment, however, was not a program or a building: it is the people of the department. I am not talking about the obvious statistics: the increased enrollment in our courses, the unusually large number of physics majors, the rapidly growing numbers of publications and grants. I am talking about how you were able to assemble a collection of talented faculty who are not only good teachers and scholars, but who are also cooperative, mutually supportive, and who treat each other with respect. A department that gets along as well as ours, and that is effective as ours, is rare. We do a lot more than most departments our size; much of the reason for that is that we trust and respect each other, and we support each other. We do not see people acting out of selfish reasons.
For the twenty years I have been here, I have seen you model that approach day in and day out. You have always put the department's interests first, and you have encouraged us all to do so. If we are "playing above our heads," it is because that is how you taught us to play.
Thanks for a great twenty years.
Best regards,
Rick Matthews


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100 Olin Physical Laboratory
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, NC 27109-7507
Phone: (336) 758-5337, FAX: (336) 758-6142