‘A passion and love for UMES’ – and each other
PRINCESS ANNE, MD. - (Feb. 14, 2013) - A pre-Internet-era dictionary surely exists somewhere in the Frederick Douglass Library with this uniquely UMES definition for “college sweethearts:” Vernetta Elizabeth Brittingham and Jesse Teleferro Williams Sr.
If not, it should.
The couple celebrated their golden wedding anniversary Dec. 22, 2012 in a special way.
“We both wanted to renew our vows,” Mrs. Williams said. “It was very important that it occur on the campus where we met.”
The 3 p.m. ceremony at the Richard A. Henson Center was held 50 years to the day and time of their original wedding.
Their son, Jesse T. Williams Jr., a pastor of a 3,000-member church in Harlem, presided. Their four grandchildren also played prominent roles as 150 invited guests looked on. Jesse III was his grandfather’s best man. Jared O. Thompson, another grandson, escorted Mrs. Williams. Their daughter and daughter-in-law were bridesmaids along with granddaughter Camille, who was escorted by her brother, Nicholas.
Both remember the day they met: Oct. 3, 1959.
They were waiting in line at Maryland Hall – now the J.T. Williams’ administration building – to acquire their monthly dining hall passes. (Monthly room and board fees in those days were $41, Vernetta Williams recalls.)
Mrs. Williams is of average height and couldn’t help notice a 6-foot 8-inch sophomore who had matriculated a year earlier to play basketball for Maryland State College.
“I had never seen anybody that tall,” said Mrs. Williams, a freshman in the fall of 1959.
It took a few weeks before they started to date – she recalls fondly the courtship began on a bench near Waters Hall.
She was from nearby Berlin, Md. He was from Philadelphia. City meets country.
Mr. Williams remembers some initial trepidation from members of his future wife’s family when he met them for the first time. “We worked through it,” he said, “and I’m glad we did.”
Both grew up in families that valued education, commitment and faith.
“If you have a spiritual life, a family life and develop strong friendship along the way; those are words to live by,” Mr. Williams said.
Over their half-century partnership, the couple “survived the usual ups and downs” that accompany marriage, he said.
“Despite our different backgrounds,” Mrs. Williams said, “we just found our ideals were the same. I think that’s what made it work all these years.”
Mr. Williams rose through the ranks to become an elected officer and vice president with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., while Mrs. Williams worked as an office manager, was a stay-at-home mom and then taught.
“We survived when the money was funny and the change was strange,” Mr. Williams said of the early years living paycheck-to-paycheck in an era when the country was coming to grips with civil rights.
Although Goodyear moved the couple around – they lived in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Kansas – “we have always had a passion and love for this university,” said Mr. Williams, who has been the UMES’ Board of Visitors’ only chairman since its formation in 1997.
“Jesse always talks about how Maryland State – UMES – has been good to him, and the success we’ve enjoyed over the years,” Mrs. Williams said. “We’re very grateful.”
Three scholarship endowments have been established in the couple’s honor; the 50th wedding anniversary celebration doubled as a fundraiser for those funds.
And what advice would Mrs. Williams give today’s undergraduates?
“I would encourage them not to let the culture and mores of today change who they are and who they could be,” she said. “A lot of people get side-tracked. Having a good marriage takes work.”
Added Mr. Williams, “After 53 years, we’re still best friends.”
Bill Robinson, UMES public relations director, (410) 621-2355