An elected colonel, a major in the United States Army and the creator of the Veterans Administration Program at the University of Oklahoma, Guy Y. Williams, chair of the Department of Chemistry from 1923 until 1942, worked tirelessly for the veterans of the university.
“He was a gifted professor, and during the more than 40 years he spent in the classroom, he made learning a rewarding and happy experience for his students,” wrote George L. Cross, OU president, upon Williams’ death in 1968. “He taught more than chemistry. He communicated to his classes his own lively curiosity and his zest for living.”
Born in 1881 in Texas, Williams’ father moved the family to what would become Enid. While growing up, he became attracted to acrobatics and spent his summer wages to build a private gymnasium. He earned extra money by performing in the local circus.
It was his interest in his father’s medical books that brought Williams to OU, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1906.
Williams went on to earn his master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Chicago and his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Illinois, all while continuing to teach at OU.
In 1917, Williams left his teaching position at OU to serve with Company A Engineers of the Oklahoma National Guard. The unit fought with Pershing on the Mexican border in search for the bandit Pancho Villa. During his 15 years as a reserve major in the U.S. Army, he consulted with them regarding many topics, including chemical warfare.
In 1919, he returned to OU and was elected colonel in charge of OU’s organized military training program and was instrumental in the establishment of the military science discipline. It was after World War II that he helped establish the Veterans Administration Program at OU.
From 1934 to 1935, he served as OU’s acting athletics director and is credited for establishing today’s football program.
Williams is best-known for engaging his students in innovative ways. He would use his acrobatic tricks to keep the attention of his classes during chemistry lectures, demonstrating how chemical equations are balanced by balancing himself on the corner of the desk. Urban legend has it that Williams was locked out of a classroom one day, so he crawled through the window above the door to enter the room. When asked about the truth of the rumor, he neither confirmed or denied having done it.
Williams was a member of the American Chemical Society, Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi, a collaborating chemist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and director of the State of Oklahoma Food and Drug Laboratory. In his spare time, he raised award-winning champion setters and enjoyed horseback riding and quail hunting.