From Sunset to Siam: Professor bestowed honorary degree in Thailand

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By Laura Lewis, Reporter

SUNSET BEACH—Jim Williams shows a black-and-white photo of a small group of children standing outside a small schoolhouse.

That’s a picture taken of him when he was in the third grade back in Pennsylvania, he said.

The Sunset Beach resident keeps it on hand to remind him how far he’s come since his early, humble beginnings at the one-room school near Ligonier, Pa., about 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

For much of his life, Williams practiced and followed the American dream. He married Jacque, his high school sweetheart. They raised three children while he struggled to study and learn and earn his college degrees.

It’s paid off—something Williams was reminded of when he was bestowed an honorary Ph.D. degree this past January at Siam University in Thailand, a country where Williams regularly travels to teach computer classes.

“It’s sort of like a fantasy,” Williams said, showing the old school photo. “We got electricity when I was 12.”

Fast-forward 65 years later, when Williams is shown in more recent pictures of the honorary degree he received Jan. 8.

“The thing I found interesting is the impact that teachers and coaches have on children,” he said. “And I would’ve never, ever thought that I would get a Ph.D., even an honorary Ph.D.”

“We were so poor, we had three kids right away,” recalled his wife of the past 52 years. “At one point, he had spoken about earning a Ph.D., and I just say there’s no way, no way. Not five years later, he had the opportunity and he snagged it and off we went.”

Williams’ big influences in his life have been his father, who always instilled in him to do his best, and teachers and coaches. When he was in high school, his football coach helped him get a scholarship at Clarion State Teachers College.

Otherwise, “I’d have never gone, because my dad had an eighth-grade education. Nobody ever went to college,” Williams said.

He started teaching elementary school, then pursued his master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh. While there, a college official asked Williams if he had ever thought about getting his Ph.D.

“I said, no, I’ve got a wife and three kids,” Williams recalled, laughing.

He thought he couldn’t afford it, but the official arranged for him to do research with the Office of Naval Research.

“At that time I was teaching at community college,” he said. “It’s really funny. I taught elementary school, high school, community college, undergraduates and graduates—the whole 9 yards.”

With this assistance, Williams advanced even further.

In 1991, while he was at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Information Sciences, Williams learned Thailand had asked the National Academy of Sciences if they could send someone over to evaluate where the country was headed technologically in the 21st century.

Williams was selected, and the rest is history.

“I traveled around the country,” he recalled. “I talked to the telephone company, universities, colleges, all kinds of different industries and the military and political people.”

He made a series of recommendations, one of which was, in addition to building infrastructure, “they needed to get some people who had Ph.Ds so they could begin teaching and producing people with master’s and Ph.Ds of their own,” Williams said.

He also recommended the Thais needed to have a series of workshops to bring their people up-to-date technologically.

“That meant that every year for the next five years, I went there,” said Williams, who ventured to Thailand three to four times a year.

Jacque accompanied her husband on that first trip 20 years ago. But the heat there, she said, is ungodly, especially in July, and it exacerbated her asthma.

Williams traveled with other professors from the University of Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Thailand started sending students to that university to earn their Ph.Ds.

“Since that time, we’ve probably produced 30 or 40 Ph.Ds for them,” he said. “They’re all now teaching in Thailand in various colleges and universities.”

In the meantime, Thailand has continued to keep the professor emeritus busy with assorted consulting jobs. Most recently, he helped Siam University formulate a Ph.D program in information technology and business. They started the all-English program in 2005, and Williams has been teaching courses along with other professors from the University of Pittsburgh.

“These were the first graduates,” Williams said of the three students graduating in the program. “So they decided to give me an honorary Ph.D, which was really nice of ’em. Hopefully, they’ll produce more.”

Though he’s “retired” as a professor emeritus, Williams still plans to take the 36-hour trip to Thailand to continue lending his educational expertise. While there, he stays in the homes of a university vice president, in the only air-conditioned room in the house. The vice-president’s daughters have visited and stayed with the Williamses in the U.S. as well.

“The Thais are very hospitable people,” Williams said. “They treat me just so nice.”

He has been “so lucky in my life,” says Williams, who has consulted for the United Nations and also traveled to China, India and Indonesia.

“I have a hard time believing this could all happen,” he said.

Laura Lewis is a staff writer at the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or email llewis@brunswickbeacon.com.