Remembering Dr. Sterling Williams

Sterling B. Williams
Sterling B. Williams
Sterling B. Williams
Sterling B. Williams
Sterling B. Williams

Remembering Dr. Sterling Williams

When friends, colleagues, and staff of Sterling B. Williams, MS, MD, PhD, speak of him, a portrait emerges of a multifaceted man who was thoughtful, persistent, dedicated, focused, caring, and passionate.

Sterling Williams PortraitDr. Williams was ACOG's vice president for education and directed the Council on Resident Education in Obstetrics and Gynecology (CREOG) from 2001 to 2013. After a brief illness in early May, he passed away on May 19, 2013, a death that was shocking and heartbreaking—and came just as he was preparing to celebrate retirement with his wife, Joice, beginning this June.

Some of his many close colleagues and staff shared their memories recently with ACOG Today. Their stories of Dr. Williams centered on his passion for ob-gyn education and mentorship, strong beliefs in professionalism and ethics, and, outside of work, the love of singing and enjoying good food with friends. Many also chuckled when they remembered his unique and deliberate discourse, including long pauses in speaking that were easily mistaken for the end of the thought or idea but were really like a rest in a musical composition—an interval of silence before the conversation continued. 

His love for education

Soon after Dr. Williams joined ACOG in 2001, Michael D. Wolf, PhD, executive vice president of Castle Connolly Graduate Medical Publishing, met with Dr. Williams about working with Castle Connolly.

"Sterling spoke for 40 minutes," Dr. Wolf said. "He spoke beautifully and slowly and carefully, and that was his way." But Dr. Wolf didn't yet know that Dr. Williams didn't like to be interrupted when he was explaining an issue. "Just because there was a pause in between paragraphs didn't mean it was your turn to speak," Dr. Wolf said.

Donations to the Dr. Williams Lecture

The College has created The Sterling B. Williams, MS, MD, PhD Lecture.  Housed within the College’s Council on Resident Education in Obstetrics and Gynecology (CREOG), the Williams Lecture will be a fitting memorial to a man so committed to life-long learning and his specialty.

Donations can be sent to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists/The Williams Lecture, Development Department, 409 12th Street, SW, Washington, DC, 20024. For more information regarding donations, contact Katie O'Connell at 202-863-2546 or koconnell@acog.org.

Special thanks to the Fellows, industry partners and friends who have already contributed.

But, Dr. Wolf did interrupt him, essentially saying that if ACOG wasn't interested, then he didn't need a big build-up to "no," just break it to him now. Dr. Williams replied with a smile, "Dr. Wolf, if you would just be patient, I'm coming to an end, and I'm going to come to a good conclusion for you." In the end, Dr. Williams said ACOG "would be thrilled to work with you."

"That was our first meeting, and it started with me being an idiot," Dr. Wolf said, laughing at the memory. "It was a great start to our friendship."

Norman Kahn, MD, executive vice president and CEO of the Council of Medical Specialty Societies (CMSS), met Dr. Williams when Dr. Williams became ob-gyn chair at the University of Kansas, where Dr. Kahn was then a professor. They really came to know each other when Dr. Williams was at ACOG and Dr. Kahn took a similar position in the education division for the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Dr. Kahn also became the first family physician to serve on CREOG. "Sterling and I shared a goal of improving outcomes for women and babies," he said. He was also impressed by Dr. Williams' ethics and professionalism, so when Dr. Kahn was looking for board members at CMSS, he sought out Dr. Williams.

"I was looking for people who were able to transcend their own specialty and work for the betterment of health care," Dr. Kahn said. Dr. Williams was elected to the CMSS board two and a half years ago and participated in its strategic planning process. One discussion revolved around placing more CEOs of specialty organizations on the board. "Sterling weighed in heavily that while it was important to have CEOs engaged, it was counterproductive to only have CEOs. He led—quite successfully—a movement to increase, but limit, the number of CEOs on the board to 5 out of 9," Dr. Kahn said. It was included in the CMSS bylaws, which were approved in May when Dr. Williams was ill.

"He was a very effective board member because he was not afraid to share a different opinion," Dr. Kahn said. But when the discussion and vote were over, Dr. Williams supported whatever decision was made. "Not all board members do that, and he was very good at it. After the vote, you could trust that Sterling had had his say."

The many people he mentored

Many remember Dr. Williams as a mentor whom they thought would always be there to provide assistance and offer advice. "He will truly be missed as a mentor to a lot of people," said Haywood L. Brown, MD, ob-gyn chair at Duke University in Durham, NC; chair of ACOG's District IV; and a past CREOG chair. "It's a loss to the ob-gyn profession, particularly to young people."

The story of Valerie C. Montgomery Rice, MD, exemplifies Dr. Williams' commitment to being a mentor. Dr. Montgomery Rice, a reproductive endocrinology and infertility (REI) specialist, is now dean and executive vice president at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

In 1997, Dr. Montgomery Rice was a junior professor at the University of Kansas as Dr. Williams was being recruited to become the ob-gyn chair there. Dr. Montgomery Rice had created the REI division at Kansas, but, after four years, was leaving to accept a job in Michigan. "I wrote him out a strategic plan of what I thought he needed to do to continue REI in its vitality," she said.

About six months after Dr. Montgomery Rice left Kansas, Dr. Williams called her and said he couldn't find anyone who fit the role. She said she was sorry and gave him a few names to consider. But two months later, he called again and said she had given him an "audacious strategic plan" and only she could tackle it.

She gave him all the reasons she couldn't return to Kansas: She and her husband had just moved to Michigan eight months ago, they'd accepted new jobs, they'd even bought a house. Dr. Williams asked her what it would take to get her to return to Kansas. He told her to write down all the requirements and be as "audacious" as she could.

Dr. Montgomery Rice wrote a long list and presented it to him. "And he met every one of my requests." Checkmate. "So after being in Michigan only 11 months, we moved back to Kansas," she said.

One of Dr. Montgomery Rice's requirements was that Dr. Williams become her mentor and help her outline a path to move up in academia. He stuck to that promise throughout the years, helping her get appointed to ACOG's PROLOG Task Force on Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility and the Committee on Scientific Program and nominating her to become a board examiner.

"What was most important was I was able to call on him with questions on how to manage life, gender challenges, balancing family and career," she said. She called him when she was considering her current position about two years ago. "I would start out telling him all the reasons why I would take a position and he would ask, 'why wouldn't you?' He was a great sounding board, someone who could be objective—opinionated, for sure, but objective."

Supporting other African Americans

 Sterling Williams and Debra Fiser
University of Arkansas College of Medicine Dean Debra H. Fiser, MD, congratulates Dr. Williams after presenting him with the 2012 Dean’s Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Dr. Williams was also well respected for his leadership in and dedication to the National Medical Association (NMA), which represents African-American physicians and patients.

"He was a role model and icon for all, and especially for African Americans, navigating the pathways in our field," said Cyril Spann, MD, a gynecologic oncology professor at Emory University in Atlanta and past chair of the ob-gyn section of the NMA. "It was important for us that he was a vice president at ACOG. It offered further proof that we can and should achieve on a national level."

"Sterling had a real love for the National Medical Association," said Washington C. Hill, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist retired from private practice and now working on maternal and gynecological care in Rwanda through the Clinton Foundation. Dr. Hill is also a past chair of the NMA ob-gyn section. "He would push us to be involved in ACOG and would make sure that the younger people knew of committee openings and other opportunities.

"I know having Sterling at ACOG was a plus for the NMA," Dr. Hill said. "Even though he was retiring, I know he would have still been at our NMA annual meeting, staying involved and supporting young people's involvement. He was a friend and a mentor."

Kindness for colleagues and staff

Beyond being a mentor, Dr. Williams was simply a man who cared for others, including his family, friends and colleagues, and his staff.

When Dr. Haywood Brown was chair of CREOG, he became ill, likely altitude sickness, during a CREOG retreat and fainted. Dr. Williams took charge, driving Dr. Brown to the hospital himself and calling his wife. "He took care of me like I was a kid," Dr. Brown said. "His taking charge of making sure I was OK will never be forgotten."

A member of Dr. Williams' staff, Erica Bukevicz, MBA, MS, who worked for Dr. Williams for seven and a half years, had a similar story. One day after lunch, he walked into her office and found her lying on the floor, thanks to a sudden bout of food poisoning. Instead of simply telling Ms. Bukevicz to go home, Dr. Williams personally drove her home and helped her inside. 

When Ms. Bukevicz was training for a half-marathon and co-worker Valerie Powell was training for a three-day breast cancer walk, Dr. Williams monitored their training regimens, making sure the advice they had received was sound. And when Ms. Powell's mother was in the hospital in Kansas, he called physicians he knew there, as well as telephoned Ms. Powell's mother every day, comforting her and making sure she understood her treatment options.

Dr. Williams could tell when something was bothering his staff. Even if you didn't want to bother him with personal problems, he would sit in your office until you opened up, Ms. Bukevicz said. And if Dr. Williams himself was having a trying day, he knew where to go: "Whenever he had a bad day—I had a stash of Tootsie Rolls—and he'd say, 'I need some,'" said Vanita Murray, CCMEP, who worked for Dr. Williams for 10 years.

He was a mentor to his staff also, supporting them and making sure they received recognition for their work. "He was very good at seeing your potential and would not let anyone overlook your potential," said Ms. Powell, who worked for Dr. Williams for 12 years.

Mrs. Murray and Dr. Williams would have grammar challenges, forcing the other to prove the rule behind a certain phrase or sentence structure if the other person didn't agree. Ms. Bukevicz admits she was often over-eager when starting new projects when she was first working for him. "He would say, 'Calm down, think things through.' He wanted you to look at the possible scenarios and consequences."

Sandra A. Carson, MD, was appointed to replace Dr. Williams after he announced his retirement from ACOG. She had the opportunity to shadow him for nearly three months. "I enjoyed sharing the time we had together. I knew he wanted to impart as much information as he could to maintain our shared values of quality education, staff promotion, and personal communication," Dr. Carson said. "We hope to continue his many fine programs and use his initiatives as stepping stones to future educational endeavors."

A singer and a foodie

With all the respect and admiration his colleagues and staff have for Dr. Williams, some of their warmest memories are of being invited to hear him sing and sharing meals with him.

Ms. Powell calls herself Dr. Williams' "groupie," seeing him sing numerous times with his beloved Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center in DC and at Carnegie Hall in New York City. He also sang a few times with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

 Sterling Williams Chorus
Dr. Williams was known for his singing talent and was a proud member of the Washington Chorus.

Dr. Wolf and Ms. Powell both attended the Carnegie Hall performance. Dr. Williams was an alum of the New York Choral Society and was invited back to join the chorus to sing with folk music group Peter, Paul and Mary. It was one of the final performances of the group before Mary Travers died of leukemia.

Dr. Kahn was invited to hear Dr. Williams sing for a Christmas performance of the Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center about two years ago. "We told him, 'We'll try to pick out your voice,' and he said, 'I hope you fail,'" because it is important that a chorus sound as one and that you can't differentiate between the individual voices. I was very proud of him, and it was a lovely concert."

Dr. Montgomery Rice never had the opportunity to hear her mentor perform on stage, though she did hear him sing for friends. She fondly remembers visiting his home several times, enjoying mimosas and plantains that Joice fried up. "I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to break bread and share time at their home," she said.

Dr. Williams was known for his love of good food. For the last few summers, he and Dr. Wolf would gather other friends for a special dinner that would last into the evening at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, including a private tour. "It was to be an annual tradition, but I just realized it's not going to happen this year," Dr. Wolf said.

Dr. Williams was also a fan of simple comfort food. During a discussion with Mrs. Murray about delicious Thanksgiving meals, she told him nothing could compare to her granny's mac and cheese, ham, and sweet potato pie. Every year since, Mrs. Murray brought Dr. Williams a plate of her granny's Thanksgiving specialties.

From Ms. Powell, he always requested deviled eggs. And because Ms. Powell also had family in Kansas, whenever she visited, she had to bring back Dr. Williams ribs from Gates Bar-B-Q.

Those who were close to Dr. Williams respected him, admired him, appreciated his mentorship and friendship, and now miss him tremendously. They agree that we have lost a leader in the ob-gyn field and a dedicated mentor.

"To me he was one of those people you meet once in a lifetime. You try to get everybody you know to meet him and experience what you'd experienced," Dr. Wolf said.

"I'm just going to miss seeing him," Dr. Brown said. "I'm going to miss not being able to bounce ideas off of him. He has a true legacy."

"I lost a very valuable board member. I lost a very effective colleague. But I also lost a friend," Dr. Kahn said. "This has left a hole personally and professionally that will be very, very difficult to fill. This is a hard one."

My Mentor
By Erica Bukevicz, MBA, MS

Someone special, someone bright
Who always had others' best interests in his sight
He was calm, he was polite
And always fought for what he believed was right
He stood out in a room full of people
Because his contributions were greater than minimal
He was a trusted friend
He was my mentor
Someone I'll always remember
May he rest in peace
While his spirit lives with us forever


Share your memories

I just wanted to add my two cents regarding my long-time mentor Dr. Sterling Williams. I was a third-year medical student at Kansas when Dr. Williams was my attending. He delivered one of my best friend's children while I was on service. Dr. Williams was the faculty member who gave me my third-year ob-gyn oral examination on the day he left for Columbia.

A few years later we touched based at CREOG when I was a resident, then later as a residency program director at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine Tulsa. He asked me to serve on the CREOG Examination Committee, of which I was honored. I later became vice chair of that committee and currently have chaired it for the last 3 years with Dr. Williams mentoring. When I needed reference letters for promotion at Oklahoma, UCONN, and Yale, Dr. Williams was the first to respond and wrote me fantastic letters.

In 2007, I received a phone call from Sterling Williams. He said "Howard, would you like to serve on the Gyn PROLOG Committee?" I said, "of course." He said, "Well, you will need to write 25 questions with a synopsis of the answers." I said, "No problem, when is it due?" He said, "That is the catch-two weeks ago!" The rest of the story was that one of the members of the committee was unable to serve at the last minute. I was proud to be asked and to be able to help.

I miss him very much as he has been a part of my entire medical career.

Howard A. Shaw, MD, MBA
Medical Director, Women's & Children's Services
Yale-New Haven Hospital, Saint Raphael Campus

 

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