Helen Tinch Williams, '60, watches a saxophone quartet rehearse during a 2008 visit to the School of Music.
In 1956, Helen Williams came to what was then known as the Fredonia State Teachers College…back when she was known as Helen Tinch. She would soon become one of the campus’ most visible and impactful student leaders by a variety of measures. Among those are the roles she held in the college’s famous Hillman Opera, which has run continuously at Fredonia since 1956 — Mrs. Williams’ freshman year.
This Friday, the now-retired elementary music teacher and mother of Vanessa and Chris Williams — two of the nation’s most successful entertainers — will find herself in the pioneer’s role once again. She will be honored by the Hillman Memorial Music Association and SUNY Fredonia at 8 p.m. in King Concert Hall — with both of her children present, as well as her niece, Iris, — before the initial performance of the “Tales of Hoffmann,” this year’s Hillman Opera. Mrs. Williams will be given the Jessie Hillman Award for Excellence, the latest in a lifetime of distinctions for her and her family that have often defied obstacles and distinguished them from the pack.
Having excelled academically as a child, she was able to skip seventh grade. That led Miss Tinch to arrive on campus as a 16-year-old freshman. She was not only the youngest person at Fredonia that year, she was also one of a very few African Americans during the early days of the civil rights movement.
Not that any of that mattered to her.
“From the first day that I got here, I felt very comfortable,” Mrs. Williams recalls. “I found that the teachers didn’t treat me any differently because of my race or age. I didn’t feel as though any of that was a handicap. I didn’t even think of it.”
What she did think about was becoming a music teacher, a goal she had set long before she stepped foot into Mason Hall. That, together with the college’s strong reputation in music, made Fredonia the right choice.
“I knew I wanted to be a teacher, and [Fredonia’s] location was certainly convenient,” the Buffalo native says. “I had also earned some scholarships, and Fredonia had an excellent music program, which made it very attractive.”
Once she arrived, she wasted no time before getting involved and making the most of her education.
“I was the only freshman who was accepted into the College Choir, which was great,” she says. “Later, I was president of almost everything, it seemed…the opera – which then was called, ‘Words and Music;’ the College Choir; the Festival Chorus; and I had the lead role in “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
She was also vice president of her junior class. But it was her decision to audition for the College Choir as a freshman that would prove most significant, because she was introduced to the professor that would make the biggest impact upon her.
“That’s where I first encountered Dr. Richard Sheil,” she explains. “He was very influential. Just by observing him, I learned so many teaching skills, especially choral skills, which I used throughout my career.”
She also fondly remembers Dr. Lawrence Seigel, her vocal instructor who taught her a great many vocal techniques. However, as important as these two professors were, another man would soon make an even bigger impression.
Milton A. Williams, Jr., was an instrumental major, whom she recalls meeting on campus one day as they were passing by each other down a hallway.
“We just sort of made eye contact,” she explains, but there was clearly something about him that she liked. There were a couple of intimidating things about him too, including the fact that he was a senior, and that his Long Island home “seemed like it was on the other end of the world” from the Hickory Street neighborhood in downtown Buffalo where she was raised. Nonetheless, they began to date, seeing a fair amount of each other that first year.
“We married after I graduated, Aug. 20, 1960,” says Helen, rattling off the date without a moment’s hesitation. “In the meantime, he did his military service and got his master’s degree while he was waiting for me to finish at Fredonia.”
After their time on campus, they moved downstate to Westchester County and each began lifelong careers as elementary music teachers, albeit in different districts, which Helen believes strengthened both their own relationship as well as their subsequent skills as parents.
“We each had very separate interests, musically, and that continued through our marriage,” she explains. “I think that translated through to our kids, who were exposed to a lot of musical diversity — jazz, Broadway, theater, pop, as well as the classics — in our household.”
Apparently that worked out pretty well, given the careers her children have developed.
Vanessa became the first African American to be crowned Miss America. Since then she has continued to reinvent and broaden her talents, going from a chart-topping singer, to starring on Broadway, to becoming an accomplished actress. Recently, she has starred in such hit TV series as “Ugly Betty” and, currently, “Desperate Housewives.” She has won or been nominated for Grammy, Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe awards. In 2007, she was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In short, she is one of the most sought-after and multifaceted performers in the entertainment business today.
Chris, an actor and comedian, has had a very successful career in his own right. A quick rundown of his credits include roles in such hit TV shows as “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “CSI,” “24,” “Weeds” and “The Late Show with David Letterman.” He has also been in movies like “Dodgeball” with Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, “The Joneses” with Demi Moore and David Duchovny, and 2010’s “The Confidant.” He also has voice credits in numerous video games and commercials.
How is it that two elementary school music teachers who got their start in Fredonia, N.Y., would produce two children that could go on to have such successful, high-profile careers?
“They just followed their dreams, and we supported them,” Helen explains. “We did require them in fourth grade to select an instrument. Vanessa picked the French horn, and Chris, with a little nudging from his dad, chose the oboe. He eventually added the sax. The rule was, they had to play their instruments until high school graduation.”
Both were always involved in their high school productions as well as summer community theatres. Nothing fancy. No big plan. Just a home filled with love and discipline, responsibility and respect.
“They are both talented, hard-workers, and focused, and — together with some lucky breaks — they have developed very successful careers,” she says. “Talent can be fostered, but you have to couple that with discipline and focus. It’s something that you can’t really teach, but you can encourage it when you recognize it within someone.”
She believes that both she and Milton instilled a strong work ethic in their children, which the two Fredonians developed in themselves while they were students.
“My husband had many jobs on campus, and I was a house mother [a.k.a., a resident hall assistant],” Williams says. “You learn how to interact with people [when you work], what their needs are, how to be sensitive to things that were affecting them, and that really helped us in preparing how to deal with our kids and our students.”
They also prepared them for disappointment, which is an especially good skill for actors who often find that the parts they do not get far outnumber the ones they do.
“You have to help them be satisfied in knowing that they have done their best — even if their best doesn’t get them to where they want to be at that time,” she instructs.
Despite all of the success her children have enjoyed, however, Helen insists that she and her husband enjoyed, and were every bit as proud of, their own lives’ work as they are of their children’s.
“We both loved our jobs,” Williams regales. “We loved teaching and have no regrets. The things I enjoy hearing the most are when our former students tell us they really appreciate the discipline that we taught them. The kids knew we were tough, but fair, and they knew that we respected them.”
Sadly, the Williams family lost their beloved Milton in early 2006, at age 70, when he was inflicted with a sudden pancreatic infection while he and Helen were vacationing in the Bahamas. He died just two days later, with his wife, children and grandchildren by his side. Milton will surely weigh heavily on Helen’s mind this weekend as she returns to campus, though she knows he will be there in spirit.
“I know my husband would be delighted and proud to know that I am receiving this award,” Helen says fondly. “After a 45-year marriage, parenting two great kids who have remarkable careers in the arts, and the nearly four decades through which we shared our rewarding teaching careers, it’s hard to believe it all began when I met this cute guy my freshman year at Fredonia.”
Since Milton's death, Helen’s involvement in the Fredonia campus has steadily grown. She came back in 2008 to see firsthand the many enhancements made to the School of Music in recent years, and visit with Dr. Sheil and some friends from the Class of 1960. She also was able to meet that year’s student recipient of a scholarship established by Gileen Widmer French in memory of her mother, Francella Pattyson Widmer, a Hillman Association Board Member and long standing treasurer of the volunteer opera organization. Mrs. French knew of her mother's admiration for Helen's talent and determination as a young student and used Helen as a model in developing the criteria for the recipients of her mother’s memorial scholarship.
“Apparently her mother had observed me when I was at the college, as a student, and felt I was the right person she wanted to do this,” Helen explains. “It really gives you pause and reminds you that you always want to put your best foot forward, because you never know who is watching. I am very grateful to be involved and to have been asked to play a role in establishing the criteria for this scholarship.”
Her selection by the Hillman Opera Board to be the first recipient of this honor is no coincidence, as Widmer happened to be the sister-in-law to Robert Coon, ’50, Fredonia’s one-time Vice President of Student Affairs and now the President of the Hillman Memorial Music Association Board of Directors.
“This award honors a dedicated and respected musician or educator who has demonstrated a passion for teaching or performance,” Mr. Coon explains. “The Hillman board views Helen as a person who is serving as a community force in the advancement and appreciation of music. Francella recognized all of these qualities in Helen. We are honored to be able to present Helen with this prestigious recognition.”
Helen also returned this past June to celebrate her 50-year reunion as a member of the Class of 1960. She enjoyed a wonderful weekend with many of her closest friends and classmates. Having also taught as an adjunct professor for three years at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., Helen admits she really enjoys the feeling she gets on a college campus.
“You know, I love the spirit I feel on campus,” she says. “When I taught at Manhattanville after I retired, just walking on a campus, there is a certain surge of energy you experience as the students focus on their careers, and I find that very stimulating.”
Considering she spent more than 40 years stimulating the artistic minds of thousands, the Hillman Association and SUNY Fredonia are more than happy to return the favor..
To be a part of Friday evening’s memorable event, tickets are available through the SUNY Fredonia Ticket Office in the Williams Center, by phone at 673-3501 (1-866-441-4928) or online at www.fredonia.edu/tickets
Share on Facebook