Sometimes something totally unexpected happens, and it jolts you to think about things in a different way. That is what happened to me with the recent unexpected passing of former Charleston City Councilman Rodney Williams. Rodney died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 58. I had known him for over 35 years, and we were scheduled to have lunch this week.
I have thought about Rodney a lot since his passing, and one phrase keeps coming into my mind: “How can I help?” That was the phrase I first heard from Rodney when he was a skinny kid at the College of Charleston, and I heard it countless times over the rest of his full and generous life.
You see, Rodney was a public servant of the highest order. He served the public in countless ways — big and small, as a mentor to children, as a community activist, as a builder of homes for people in need, as a city councilman — as a human being. He was a public servant simply because he believed it was the right thing to do.
I first met Rodney when he was a student at the College of Charleston and I was helping a group of students organize a voter registration drive. Rodney and I started talking about the need for getting more young people involved in politics and his response, which I heard countless times the rest of his life, was “How can I help?” He went to work registering voters, and a long friendship was born.
Rodney’s commitment to service found full expression in his many years and the many homes that were built by the Sea Island Habitat for Humanity where he served as executive director. His commitment even extended globally as he was chosen by Habitat International to go to Ghana and help with economic development and building homes.
Rodney ran for City Council because he wanted to help people. One incident right after he was elected said it all about Rodney’s commitment to public service. We were having lunch, and he was telling me about all the things he wanted to do to improve the community and the city. When the waiter brought the check, I handed it to Rodney saying, “Now that you will be getting your city councilman salary, you can pick up the check.” Rodney looked at me with a surprised look and asked, “You mean I get paid?”
No account of Rodney and his life would be complete without a recognition of his commitment to education — for himself and others. For over 15 years, Rodney was a tutor and mentor for students, and on a personal level, he completed 24 professional development and business management courses at the Darla Moore School of Business at USC.
The pinnacle of his educational pursuits was last year when he completed Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Senior Executives in State and Local Government Program. The last time I saw Rodney, he was wearing his Kennedy school T-shirt. He was very proud of his time at Harvard — as well he should have been.
To those of us who knew and loved Rodney Williams, his legacy will live on. And, anyone who cares about our city, their neighborhood and their fellow man should be inspired by his life and work. We should all remember his example and more often ask the four simple words that he lived by: “How can I help?”
Phil Noble is a businessman who is active in community service in Charleston and throughout South Carolina.