$2 million gift to bring high-impact speakers, performers to Cornell

MOUNT VERNON — A Chicago couple has committed $2 million to Cornell College, most of which will fund campus visits by speakers and performers who can inspire and energize students to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others.

Donor Richard Williams, an attorney and Cornell alumnus, vividly recalls the impact of an October 1962 speech by Martin Luther King Jr. in Cornell’s King Chapel. “It made me want to participate in world affairs, to become involved,” says Williams, who later took part in civil rights marches in Chicago.

Williams’ gift will ensure that current and future students have sufficient opportunity to hear contemporary speakers and performers. “You can get involved in everyday life, going to class, making sure a paper is written, but lose sight of why you’re doing it. On the other hand, after returning from a great lecture or performance, you’re energized,” he said. “These can be life-transforming opportunities. Students go to college for a limited time, and hopefully it does transform their lives.”

Williams earned a history degree in 1963, attended Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C., and returned home to Chicago to become a founding partner of Hlustik, Huizenga, Williams & Vander Woude, Ltd. He is a five-term member of Cornell College’s Board of Trustees. In 1991 he endowed a lecture series at Cornell that has helped to fund visits by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and other speakers.

“Cornell gave so much to me. With scholarships and campus jobs I was able to pay for my college education. This is a payback to the college that gave me so much. Marlene respects that, so we’re doing this together,” he says.

Marlene Williams is an honorary alumna. The Williamses have two adult children. Their gift also will support Cornell’s annual fund, pre-law program and the Beta Omicron Distinguished Alumni Visitors Program. Williams wants Cornell students and student organizations to suggest ideas for campus visitors, including musical or comedy acts. “We want to bring people to campus that students want to see and hear and that will motivate them and provide different perspectives,” he says.

Cornell President Les Garner says the pledge is indicative of the Williamses’ longtime loyalty to Cornell. “Rich and Marlene have provided outstanding leadership and support to Cornell. We are grateful for Rich’s commitment to ensure that our students today have the same extraordinary opportunities he had on the hilltop,” Garner said.

The Williams’ gift is part of Cornell College’s comprehensive campaign “Extraordinary Opportunities: The Campaign for Cornell College” which concludes in December 2009. The campaign seeks to enhance the Cornell experience by increasing the college’s endowment, upgrading its facilities, and enhancing the academic program. For more information about the campaign or making a gift, please visit www.cornellcollege.edu/campaign