Sullivan County Historical Society History Maker Award 1996
Judge Robert C. Williams
Judge Robert Williams shared the simple upbringing of many young people who grew up in western Sullivan in the first half of this century. His family was poor, but since his life was so similar to that of his neighbors he was not conscious of it. His parents, Harry and Violet Scott Williams, had a small farm in West Bethel. To supplement Harry’s earnings as a highway equipment operator, the family raised chickens for eggs, kept a cow for milk and butter, fed a couple of pigs and in their garden grew potatoes and vegetables. During the summer the family of four (Bob had an older brother) moved into a chicken coop, about 15’ x 15’ and rented the house to guests escaping New York City’s summer heat. The guests may have enjoyed Sullivan’s cool air, but Bob has never forgotten how hot a chicken coop can be in July.
He attended a one-room schoolhouse, the West Bethel School and was taught by a woman, Lydia Calkin, who had taught his father and whom he remembers as one of the finest teachers he ever had. One of his memories of those days was that of being excused from school to walk to a neighboring farm to carry back water for his fellow “scholars.” Mrs. Calkin early spotted his ability and moved him along lest he become bored. As a result, he was able to skip both the third and fifth grades and graduated at age sixteen from the Jeffersonville High School. A debating scholarship enabled him to attend Bates College in Lewiston, Maine for a year, but in 1946 he enlisted in the army at age seventeen and served in the Korean Occupation Army 1946-1947. Upon discharge, he made what he recalls as a fateful decision. He was proud of his staff sergeant’s stripes and signed up in the reserves while he returned to Bates; but by 1950 he was back in Korea with a platoon of combat engineers whose chief responsibility was clearing minefields. Though he was not injured in this hazardous duty, he did come down with malaria and frozen feet.
By 1952 he had graduated Bates College and the same year married a young woman from Cochecton, Dorothy Bertsch. He completed his studies at Brooklyn Law School, Class of 1955 and returned to the county to practice law with the firm of Levine and Williams in Monticello.
His legal practice did not last long, however. His interests turned to the judicial area and by appointments and general elections he steadily moved up the judicial ladder: Assistant District Attorney (1957), District Attorney (1962), Family Court Judge (1968) and his election as Supreme Court Justice in 1973 in which position he served for over twenty-one years. In the general election of 1987 he was endorsed by the Democratic, Republican and Conservative parties.
Judge Williams recalls being involved in some very interesting cases. When the Borough of Staten Island petitioned to withdraw from New York City, he wrote the decision which denied the Borough’s application. He was responsible for the decision that required New York State to move promptly and transfer prisoners from local jails to the State prison system within ten days after a prisoner’s conviction. In 1994 his decision enabled independent candidate Golisano to run on the ballot for governor, even though members of his own party warned him that Golisano might take votes away from Pataki. In any case, Pataki was elected despite Golisano.
Bob Williams and the late Milton Levine were for decades the two most popular Masters of Ceremonies in the county. His blend of pungent wit and earnestness has delighted many a dinner and made him a popular speaker throughout the county. He has been honored by the Salvation Army, the American Legion and served one term as Elder for the First Presbyterian Church of Monticello. In 1984 he was the recipient of the Felix J. Aulisi Award presented by the New York State Trial Lawyers Association “for his consistent and diligent dedication to the administration of justice.”
When Judge Williams retired in the summer of 1995, he was honored with a dinner attended by over 700 of his neighbors and friends around the State. However, his retirement was only temporary. He accepted appointment as a Judicial Hearing Officer and continues to this day to serve as a judge presiding over civil trials when requested in Sullivan and neighboring counties.
In honoring Judge Williams with the History Maker Award, the Society is recognizing a representative Sullivan County man for whose early life the phrase “humble beginnings” is not a cliché. He has preserved the best virtues of that world, but through education and the school of life has continually broadened himself. He is given the best of himself to his country, to his community and to his profession; and in return is honored and respected across the county and state.