The Francis S. Guess Bridge to Equality Award honors the memory of civil rights trailblazer and civic leader Francis S. Guess and recognizes those who spur innovation leading to equality.
The award’s most recent recipients continue to do just that.
The late Vanderbilt University Vice Chancellor and athletics director David Williams II and wife Gail Williams, Vanderbilt Associate Director of Government and Community Relations, were presented the fourth annual Francis S. Guess Bridge to Equality Award at a luncheon Thursday at the Music City Center’s Davidson Ballroom.
At the event, which attracted a crowd of nearly 400 attendees, the Williams family announced the establishment of the David Williams II Scholarship Fund at The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, to honor David and his dedication to education.
Williams died at age 71 on Feb. 8, 2019, just days after retiring from his 18-year tenure as a Vanderbilt University vice chancellor and full-time tenured law professor. During the 2017-18 academic year, Vanderbilt Athletics graduation rates were the best in the Southeastern Conference, including 10 Commodore programs finishing with a perfect graduation rate.
“David and Francis [Guess] had a profound relationship,” said Gail Williams in accepting the award. “They would get in deep discussions about the inequitable plight of young African-American males, and how best to go about shortening that gap—and how best to shape the conversations in this community for effectiveness for change and for equity and for equality.
“So to accept this honor, in honor of Francis, is indeed flattery, and kind,” Gail Williams said. “So Francis, thank you for leading the way.”
The event also featured a luminary-filled panel titled ‘A Conversation About Building Bridges to Equality.’ Sean Henry, Nashville Predators president/CEO, moderated the panel, which consisted of: Eddie George, Tennessee Titans great and philanthropist, entrepreneur and entertainer; Rev. Dr. Emilie M. Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School; Stephanie White, Vanderbilt head women’s basketball coach; Shan Foster, Vanderbilt basketball great and VP of External Affairs and AMEND Together at the YWCA; and Robert Sherrill, President of Impact Youth Outreach nonprofit.
Ellen Lehman, president of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, said: “Like Francis Guess, many people born and raised here have worked to build bridges for those in need of a hand up to a better future. David and Gail Williams weren’t born here, but individually and collectively have set about building bridges to people of every age, race, religion and economic status. Hands were extended to them on their arrival, and in turn they extended their hands to make the path easier for others.
“They walked the walk instead of just talking the talk. But for them the lives of hundreds would be on a vastly different trajectory.”
In 2016, civic leader Ben R. Rechter was awarded the inaugural Francis S. Guess Bridge to Equality Award, while U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw received the second award in 2017. Retired U.S. District Court Judge Thomas A. Wiseman, Jr. and State Court of Appeals Judge Richard H. Dinkins shared the 2018 honors.
About Francis S. Guess
Francis S. Guess (1946-2015) was a Nashville trailblazer in his business and civic life as well as a tireless champion for civil rights. Guess grew up in the old Preston Taylor Homes public housing development. After serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, attending Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt University, he forged a path in the business world and became vice president of The Danner Company, which operated Shoney’s restaurants, and owner-operator of Helicopter Corporation of America. He served 30 years on the Tennessee Commission on Human Rights and was appointed by Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Commission on Human Rights. A resident of Bordeaux, he served on more than 100 boards and commissions and had a lifelong commitment to building bridges and creating equal opportunity in the community he loved.