New Endowed Fine Arts Scholarship Celebrates Opportunity, Talent, and Gratitude

Viola Grisim Williams '36

Viola Grisim Williams ’36

Gerald (Jerry) Williams, who attended St. Olaf College with the class of 1950 and founded Williams Sound Corporation, has generously established a $1 million endowed scholarship fund to create the Viola Grisim Williams Scholarship in Fine Arts. The scholarship may annually provide full tuition for a student with demonstrated scholastic achievement and financial need, with preference for students majoring in vocal music, music performance, and/or music education. The scholarship will be available for students starting in Fall 2017.

The scholarship honors the kindness shown to Williams’ stepmother Viola Grisim Williams ’36 and the contributions she made to the Williams family.

“Viola had a beautiful singing voice — truly a gift and an extension of her heart — and did well at St. Olaf with financial support,” Jerry Williams says. “I wanted to do the same, provide someone else with excellent talent the chance to thrive at St. Olaf.”

If only a chance to attend St. Olaf

Born and raised on a 40-acre Minnesota farm, Viola and her siblings worked diligently to support their family. Yet affording college remained beyond their reach, until a relative stranger provided Viola an exceptional opportunity.

“Viola’s sister was a housekeeper for Frederick D. Underwood, retired chair and president of the Erie Railroad, who summered nearby,” shares Jerry. “He was looking for a chauffeur. Her sister knew Viola could do it from their experience on the farm. That opportunity led her to St. Olaf.”

Impressed by her talent and character, Underwood asked what he could do to help her. She humbly asked if he might help her attend St. Olaf; he offered to pay for her entire education.

Viola Grisim '36 in Choir

Viola Grisim Williams ’36 in the 1935 St. Olaf Choir (first row, third from left) directed by F. Melius Christiansen (center).

Admitted to St. Olaf at the age of 26, Viola sang in the St. Olaf Choir under the direction of its legendary founder, F. Melius Christiansen. Notably, Viola sang in the choir each of her four years as a soprano, enabling her to travel and perform extensively throughout the United States.

Viola met Jerry’s father, who was a physician, in 1936 shortly before she graduated from St. Olaf when he was called to her family’s farm to treat her for appendicitis. They were soon married and Viola lovingly raised Jerry and his two siblings as her own, as well as adding a new brother a year later.

“She was truly of special stock, that she took all of us in so readily and cared so well for us. She taught us so much about life,” Jerry says.

Recognizing opportunities

One of these lessons was to recognize and be grateful for opportunities as they came. Jerry’s own passion – electronics – was a talent nurtured early by his father. During high school, Jerry worked with the local electrician and radio repairman, and enlisted in the Navy during World War II during his senior year where he greatly expanded his knowledge of electronics. Following his honorable discharge in 1946, he came back to Minnesota with GI Bill® funding.

“I wanted to get into the University of Minnesota’s electrical engineering program, but I was too late that year,” Jerry says. “So many G.I.s had returned and started college that many schools and their residence halls were at capacity. My mom urged me to consider St. Olaf.”

At first Jerry wasn’t thrilled with the idea of attending St. Olaf. But he thought the college radio station would provide an opportunity to extend his knowledge of electronics. Soon Williams devoted much of his spare time to the station as an FCC licensed engineer, working alongside radio pioneer Milford Jensen ‘30. He also played baritone saxophone in the band, where he sat next to a charming alto clarinet player, Lorraine Hoffman ‘48.

Paying it forward

“I stayed at St. Olaf for a second year because I really came to love the school, the faculty, and mostly a young lady who, three years later, became my wife. At St. Olaf, I learned a lot about living and loving— Lorraine and I were happily married for 56 years until her passing in 2006. Two of our children would go to St. Olaf too, all started from that first gift my mom received.”

Following his transfer and graduation from the University of Minnesota, Jerry went on to work at leading firms such as Zenith, UNIVAC (where he worked closely with pioneer Seymour Cray), and Control Data Corporation during the heady days of electronics and early computing. Inspired by his faith and the opportunity he saw, at age 48 he founded Williams Sound Corporation, a venture dedicated to helping hearing-impaired churchgoers clearly hear sermons, readings, hymns, and services with affordable transistor radio systems. The company grew to 55 employees and expanded into several markets by time he sold it to six of his employees and retired in 1987.

Now he reflects frequently on his life, and how he can pass on the gifts he’s been given. “Viola died too soon before I could truly share how much I appreciated her directing me to St. Olaf. In retrospect, I can see how the two years that I would spend at the college were all part of God’s plan for my life. I am grateful to have this opportunity to make this possible for others, and to repeat that opportunity for even more students as often as possible through this endowed scholarship.”

This is the second scholarship Gerald Williams has made possible for St. Olaf students. The Gerald and Lorraine Williams Scholarship, established in 1979, also provides funding for financial aid.