East Tennessee State University

Retirees Association (ETSURA)

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Dr. Frank B. Williams Jr

    Dr. Frank B. Williams Jr., former chair and professor emeritus of the ETSU History Department, remembers a mischievous incident from the days when he and three other faculty members shared an office in Gilbreath Hall.
    Among his office mates was Dorman Stout Sr., a fervent admirer of Abraham Lincoln. Stout’s prized possessions included a portrait of Honest Abe that he proudly displayed on the wall behind his desk.  One day in the early 1950s, some wag decided to play a joke and put a picture of a chorus girl over Lincoln while Stout wasn’t looking.  When his wife came by the office, she said, “Dorman, what have you done to Lincoln?” 
  
   Stout saw what had happened, and — quickly identifying the most likely culprit — shouted, “Williams, why did you do that?”  Nobody confessed, but Stout thought to his dying day that his suspicions about Williams were correct — and it turns out that he was absolutely right.  Williams admitted recently that he committed the evil deed with the encouragement of the others who shared the office, George Fox and Emmett Sawyer.

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    The Lincoln portrait certainly isn’t the only one that has fallen prey to pranksters over the decades.  Soon after publication of a University School annual in the 1950s or 1960s, mysterious things happened to a picture of “Custer’s Last Stand” that decorated the faculty lounge.  Somebody had gone to work with a copy of the annual and a pair of scissors. All of the dead soldiers and Indians at The Battle of the Little Bighorn suddenly had the faces of faculty members.

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    When Williams retired from the university in 1979, fellow faculty member Tommy Copeland suggested that he learn woodworking so he could make a clock for his children.  Williams had never done any work of that kind, and Copeland said he literally had to hold Williams’ hands to keep him from hurting himself. But the two men spent many happy hours completing the project and reminiscing about life at ETSU.  When the clock was finished, Copeland got the idea of having a dinner party and presenting Williams with an honorary degree in clock making.  Dr. Burgin E. Dossett, Sr., ETSU president from 1949 to 1968, agreed to bestow the degree at the special commencement, which was attended by several faculty members and deans, and their spouses.
    Williams brought the clock he had made, and Copeland provided a satin cover for the unveiling.  After dinner, Dossett stood to give the address. “We are here to honor Frank for his achievements,” he said. “He is a noted historian.  He has written a number of books and articles, and is well known in his field.  “It is exemplary that an authority in one field can achieve honor in another area of learning.”  The president then asked Williams if he had anything to show the group that would demonstrate his newly acquired skills, and all eyes turned to the object to be unveiled.
    When Williams removed the satin cover, however, the group stared at not the clock he had made, but a cockeyed one. The hands ran backward, the case was cracked and crooked, and a piece of rope was nailed to the top.  For the first time in history, Frank Williams was speechless.  The joke, of course, had been the work of Copeland, who ended up taking the contraption home.  Later, he said, a coach’s wife came to his house and asked him to build her a clock.  Spying the cockeyed clock on a shelf in his workshop, she commented, “That must have been the first one you ever made.”  She gave him an order for a clock anyway.

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"Tales of the University" is a regular column provided by the ETSU Retirees Association about the university and the people associated with it through the decades.  Faculty, staff, students and alumni are encouraged to share their memories of ETSU with the Retirees Association for consideration for future columns.  Stories, comments and suggestions may be sent to Dr. Willene Paxton, chair of the Tales of the University committee, 1203 Lester Harris Road, Johnson City, TN 37601, or willenepj@charter.net.

 

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Mailing Address:  Office of Human Resources
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Johnson City, TN  37614-1707
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Updated on 09/07/10