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A Love Story: Barbara and John Williams

By Robert Smith, African American Legacy Project
Guest Column

Barbara Butts Williams, PhD, executive dean, External Relations & Partnerships and dean emeritus, School of Business and Technology at Capella Education Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota will visit Toledo in June.


While Butts Williams has an extraordinary professional career in her own right, her visit will be to witness and participate in the induction of her late husband Dr. John McKay Williams, DDS, (1945 – 2012) into The African American Legacy Project’s Sports Legends Hall of Fame.

Without question, Butts Williams husband’s life on the athletic field is full of accomplishment, however; in a recent interview we could hear her smiling broadly when she said, his work after sports truly represents the man she loved, and shared life with, for 30 years. He was not just an athlete, but a man who gave both his time and his heart so unselfishly to so many.  

This is a classic love story like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.  This is a story of strength, like the Mighty, Mighty Love that Ashford and Simpson sang about. Like Barack and Michelle, this is a story of dignity every step of the way. This is a story about triumph. This story is about John and Barbara Williams.

John Williams, aka Big John to most folks in this area [Toledo, OH], was an athletic standout at Libbey High School.  He was accomplished in three sports [football, basketball and track]. Graduating from Libbey in 1964, John was heavily recruited by the University of Toledo and The Ohio State University, but ultimately deciding to accept a scholarship to play football at the University of Minnesota. In 1967 “Big John” was selected First Team as an All Big Ten Tackle and in that same year led the Gophers to a Big Ten Title.

Butts Williams grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Barbara watched her dad work three jobs and says, “My mom taught me the value of earning a paycheck while working for the janitorial company she [her mom] owned.”  Ironically, years later, Butts-Williams occupied an office in the same building she had cleaned as a kid, when she became the youngest director of Education and Training for Pennsylvania’s Department of Health.

John and Barbara had a chance meeting when Barbara was a freshman at Morgan State University and John was a rookie for the Baltimore Colts.  It was only a hello. Twelve years later; they were reintroduced by mutual friends in the Minneapolis area.  They remembered their chance meeting and that single “hello” 12 years earlier turned into one lifelong  loving, meaningful and productive relationship. 

It wasn’t fast. John was a gentleman.  He was returning to Los Angeles to wrap up his career as a Ram and work for community health organization, but… the two agreed to meet again. It was to be their first date.   As agreed, a few months later “Big John” was knocking on Barbara’s door.  Butts Williams says, that moment was important, “I said to myself, that’s the kind of man I want to know, a person of his word.”

After officially retiring from the NFL in 1980, John or “Doc,” as his patients like to call him, established a dental practice in the inner city of Minneapolis. In addition to running a successful practice for over 35 years, John received his doctorate of dental surgery (D.D.S.) degree from the University of Maryland Dental School. He was trained in forensic dentistry and served as a member of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, a program of the US Department of Homeland Security.

During the early years of his dental career, in a changing and struggling inner city, John was determined to stay in the city and make a difference. He was proud of the choice he made.

"The city is starting to come back; my patients respect what I did, and their children and grandchildren are now patients," he said.

John received numerous awards and recognitions during his lifetime that included: Minneapolis Volunteer of the Year in 1992, inducted into the Toledo City League Hall of Fame in 2004, He served as a commissioner for Minneapolis St. Paul Airport Commission for more than a decade, led a prison ministry for over 20 years, served as the president of the American Odontology Forensics Society of America, served as the chairman of NORTHPOINT Health and Wellness Center, and several other nonprofit organizations in Minneapolis.

Following the September 11, 2001 tragedy in New York City, John participated on the identification team at the Chief Medical Examiner's Office.

By today’s standards John and Barbara were a power couple. During the late 70’s, Butts Williams served as Director, University of Michigan’s Executive Program at the Graduate School of Business, Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Earlier in her career, she served as Director of Training and Development for Pennsylvania Department of Health in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  

Over the past 37 years, Butts Williams has worked for several prominent companies in the Twin Cities and remains fully engaged in the greater metropolitan community. She currently serves on the following boards;   1) Since 2016, board member Allina Health a $3.9 billion health care system in Minnesota and western Wisconsin 2) Since 2010, board member  (chairman elect)  Metropolitan Economic Development Association (Meda) provides business consulting, access to capital, and market opportunities for minority entrepreneurs, and 3) since 2012, commissioner (vice chairman) Minnesota’s Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA); overseeing the construction and operations of the 1 billion dollars plus multipurpose U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis.  Barbara was appointed by former Minneapolis Mayors R.T. Rybak and Betsy Hodges to the MSFA.   

John and Barbara’s love not only blossomed but evolved as only a real love can. It didn’t just last, it got better… because each exemplified a strong religious and moral center and both believed in education. They both had strong work ethics. Both had a passion and compassion for the underserved.  They both loved people.  Their love affair is our love affair. Two people who mutually loved and respected each other.   That is why Barbara Butts Williams continues to honor “Doc” every chance she gets. 

Meet Barbara Butts Williams on Friday, June 22, 2018 during a hospitality event at The Premier Event Center 4480 Heatherdowns.  Tickets are $20.00 per person and can be purchased at The African American Legacy Project.

For additional information call 419-720-4369.


Copyright © 2018 by [The Sojourner's Truth]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 08/16/18 14:12:13 -0700.

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