By Mike Walsh for The Island Eye News
When Battery Gadsden Cultural Center needed a historical consultant, who else would we have turned to other than Roy Williams, for although he’s been to many places and done many things, the two constants in his life have been history and Sullivan’s Island. Even though many of you know Roy already, others have not had the pleasure of meeting him in person. And if you do know him, we thought you would enjoy learning more about this remarkable individual. Since they were living in Dillon, South Carolina at the time, Roy’s parents never expected their son to be born in Charlotte, but on May 19, 1935 as the family was making their way to the North Carolina mountains to escape the South Carolina heat, Roy decided it was time to enter this world, albeit somewhat prematurely. The prematurity proved not to be a problem and Roy was soon back in Dillon, where he lived until he was 2 years old. He also spent a brief period of his childhood in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, but no matter where the family lived, there was always the emotional draw back to Sullivan’s Island. After all, the family had been coming to the island since 1815 and Roy’s grandfather had been the first to move here permanently in the late 1920’s. Their roots on the island were deep indeed. Roy spent his first year of school at Sullivan’s Island Elementary School, but by the time he started second grade, World War II had begun, and his father was hired to supervise a special construction project in Charlotte. Living that year in Charlotte, Roy became much more aware of the war through scrap metal drives, rationing, and frequent U-Boat attacks off the North Carolina coast. One of Roy’s most vivid memories was during that summer after second grade. His father was now working on a hospital ship making the run between Liverpool and New York, but his mother insisted on renting a beach house as the family always did. This house, though, was on a small island accessible only by ferry. With the war on, the military kept up nightly beach patrols. One night young Roy heard the soldiers chase someone across the boardwalk that bordered the house and into the woods behind. He never found out who they were chasing, but the episode was enough to give Roy nightmares about being chased by the Germans. Roy’s mother told him that if that ever happened Roy should just turn around and tell them that he was of German descent. “Your family’s name is von Hadlin. They’re not going to give you any trouble.” Nightmares solved. Many more of Roy’s recollections of World War II can be enjoyed in his delightful interview done as part of our oral history project housed at the Low Country Digital Library found here: lcdl.library.cofc.edu/ lcdl/?f%5Bcollection_titleInfo_ title_facet%5D%5B%5D=Sulliv an%27s+Island+Oral+Histories &search_field=all_fields). The remainder of Roy’s elementary education was here at Sullivan’s Island Elementary School, followed by high school at what was then Moultrie High. The next year found Roy at Clemson, which at that time was an all-male, military college, complete with uniforms, drill and the ever-present upperclassmen. However, the next year Roy won a four-year ROTC scholarship to the University of South Carolina, so it was off to Columbia. He graduated from there in 1958 with a degree in journalism, a commission in the Navy, and a three-year commitment to active duty. That active duty was based out of Long Beach, California, where Roy spent 1 year at sea and two years doing staff duty. That assignment was extremely fortunate in another way. While there he met a young lady who had moved from Pennsylvania, Bonnie Ann Williams. Yes, the same last name! The romance bloomed so that when Roy’s active duty commitment was finished in 1961, they married in Houston, where Bonnie’s family was then located. Even though Roy had a job waiting for him back in Charleston, he and Bonnie took off on a oneyear’s honeymoon traveling through Europe. The job was still waiting for him one year later when Roy started work as a journalist for the Post and Courier. Three years later, however, Roy’s interests had shifted, so he returned to the University of South Carolina for a master’s degree in history. Other academic activities on Roy’s resume included a fellowship at the University of North Carolina and summers studying at Oxford University, England.
He spent about 10 years teaching in Columbia, Darlington and Dillon, before taking his final teaching job at Wando High School, a position he held for 17 years.
Along the way he and Bonnie continued their love of travel as well as finding time to renovate historic homes in the Ansonborough district in downtown Charleston.
Over the years Roy has written three books, most recently “Rice to Ruin,” the story of Jonathan Lucas and the South Carolina rice culture. His first was “St. James Santee—Plantation Parish,” and his second was “Sullivan’s Island,” part of the Images of America series, the royalties from which benefit our Battery Gadsden Cultural Center.
After retirement from teaching in 1997, Roy and Bonnie continued their love of travel until Bonnie’s death in 2019. Roy now spends much of his time reading—historical, non-fiction works, of course – as well as supporting local projects on Sullivan’s Island directed toward preserving the unique historical character of our beautiful island. Battery Gadsden Cultural Center is lucky to have Roy as our historical consultant. Indeed, the entire island is lucky to have Roy as an advocate for a way of life that is rapidly disappearing.