The Global Experiential Learning and Teaching award was named in honor of Lea E. Williams ADE’60 hon., P’77 AM’77, P’81, GP’14, GP’18, who was appointed Professor Emeritus of History in 1989, after having taught at Brown for 33 years. Originally a member of the Political Science Department, Williams was a specialist in East Asian studies and was named Professor of History in 1976 when the Asian History Program merged with the History Department. Williams has written several books and articles covering a wide span, including overseas Chinese nationalism, the Chinese in Southeast Asia, Portuguese trade in Southeast Asia, and Chinese maritime history.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Williams was interested in foreign languages from a young age because he was “ready to make mistakes and learn,” he says. Williams was destined to follow the family profession and become a lawyer, but World War II and travel to China changed all that. Williams joined the U.S. Army right after his high school graduation, during the height of World War II, but was sent home during training after coming down with pneumonia. It was then that a chance encounter with a family friend working for the U.S. Department of State set Williams on a path that he calls “serendipitous.” The State Department recruited Williams because he could type, a skill he decided to learn in high school while the other boys were in shop class. It was a decision that ended up changing his whole life, he says.
Williams requested to be sent to Latin America because he spoke Spanish, but, to his astonishment, he was sent to China. The 19-year-old Williams was the youngest U.S. Foreign Service Officer serving at that time. His family wasn’t phased by this because, as Williams says, “Everyone was going to some far-off place in those days.”
In Chongqing, he met his future wife, Daisy, who was one of thousands of students who fled to the region during the Second Sino-Japanese War. During that time, it was illegal to do anything deemed “frivolous,” Williams says, which included dancing. Daisy and her friends organized dance parties at their homes, and that’s where she and Williams met. “That’s the best way to learn a language,” Williams says.
The couple eventually relocated to the U.S., where Williams served as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer from 1952 to 1955 and earned his A.B. in Chinese studies from Cornell University and his A.M. in Chinese studies from Harvard University. At Harvard, he participated in Harvard's ground breaking anthropological expedition to Indonesia, headed by Clifford Geertz, and studied under John K. Fairbank, considered the doyen of post-war China studies and for whom the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University is named. Williams completed his Ph.D. in history from Harvard in 1956 and joined the Political Science Department at Brown, despite his initial negative impression of Providence. Williams recalls driving down Route 1 onto Benefit Street and thinking to himself, “What a miserable looking place!”
Williams and Daisy settled in a house on Transit Street, where they raised their two children, Adrienne and William. The family frequently traveled to various parts of Southeast Asia, where Williams was a visiting scholar and fellow. Their daughter’s first language was Mandarin Chinese, which Williams and his wife spoke exclusively in their home until Adrienne started attending school and refused to speak it. Their son’s first language was Malay; the family was living in Kuala Lumpur when he began to speak, Williams says.
Williams still lives in the house on Transit Street, where he recently remarked on how the awareness of and education about Southeast Asian culture has shifted from when he was a young man.
“I noticed that when I first got into this business 60 years ago and someone would ask, ‘What do you teach?’ I had to explain it to them. That’s no longer the case. That’s a big change,” Williams says.
Williams says he is honored to have a GELT award named for him; he says it is fitting because he has always encouraged Brown students to travel abroad.