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June 2004 Executive Profile

No Pain,
No Gain

Craven Williams goes to great lengths pushing himself and Greensboro College

By Kevin Brafford

“There is still much to be done.  I’m in my 11th year here, which is a record, I guess, for me. If the effectiveness levels and unity levels remain as they are, maybe they’ll let me stay longer.”

There were days when Craven Williams’ knees ached so badly he didn’t want to get out of bed. There were nights when they throbbed so sharply he struggled to sleep. And when one followed another, well, those were the worst days and nights of all.

A youth spent squatting in his baseball catcher’s gear, additional years absorbing the punishment that is a college football player’s badge of honor, and decades of jogging — both as a hobby and to stay in shape — had gutted both knees of the cartilage needed to keep the joints properly lubricated. 

But a half-century earlier Williams had grown up heeding the phrase “no pain, no gain” from his task-minded father, so the president of Greensboro College went about his daily business, grinning when he felt like grimacing while raising unprecedented capital for a small downtown school of 1,300 students that was itching to grow.

“They clearly broke down in 1994,” says Williams, 64, of his knees. “Through all those years I lived with it as best I could. Where there was bone on bone, it became a pocket for arthritis.”

Today, he’s pain free, thanks to knee replacement surgeries performed on the left in 2002 and the right in 2003. “I don’t want to say they’re better than new, but they are great,” he says. “If there was one thing I could do over, it would be to have had them replaced earlier.”

Still, he’s grateful for the present. There’s a twinkle in his eye, a bounce in his step, and one senses his mind is running at a sprinter’s pace. He’s raised more than $50 million — and growing — for the college since his arrival in 1993, and he speaks passionately of a five-year plan to consolidate its recent gains.

“There is still much to be done here,” says Williams. “I’m in my 11th year here, which is a record, I guess, for me. If the effectiveness levels and unity levels remain as they are, maybe they’ll let me stay longer.”

Williams was born and raised in Monroe, today nearly joined at the hip to Charlotte but in the 1940s a sleepy little town of about 20,000 where most folks were on a first-name basis. “It did seem to have that Norman Rockwell wonderfully supportive neighborhood,” he says. “You had neighbors who took a parental relationship with you. Your school teachers were concerned with making sure you learned the subject matter, but they also were concerned with your character.

“The values that were nurtured in small towns all across the state, they were there in Monroe. I would run home for lunch from school — that’s how it was for a lot of us. And I loved it.”

His mother, Jessie, tended to her and John Howard’s (“everyone called him J. Howard,” Williams says) three children; besides Craven, there were daughters Jo Ellen and Marilyn, five and three years his senior. “I remember that they were older and could beat me up,” says Williams with a chuckle.

J. Howard Williams was one of Monroe’s leading citizens. He taught math and was principal of the high school as well as the superintendent of the Fifth Heights School System. He also coached basketball, baseball and track. “Then when I came along, financially he needed to do something else, so he bought a business,” Williams remembers.

The J. Howard Williams Co. “was a combination of an Office Depot, Schiffman’s Jewelers (a Greensboro jewelry story) and your local bridal boutique,” Craven says. “It was a main street store that had a bookstore section, then office machinery — you could buy almost anything there. My sisters and I worked there in the summers and after school when your time allowed it.”

Only Williams didn’t have much free time. “In that sized town, if you were six feet tall and could walk and whistle at the same time, you played all the sports they had.” Not only did he play them, but he did so masterfully.

His first love was baseball and understandably so. His father had played semi-professionally as a catcher for a couple of years, so Craven naturally caught when he wasn’t pitching. He did both well enough that his Monroe team won its area, region and state championships and advanced to the Teener League World Series in Hershey, Pa. “We won one game and then lost to a team from the Bronx (N.Y.), which went on to win the whole thing,” he recalls. “Needless to say, it was quite a thrill.”

As a prep star, Williams no doubt thrilled others. He developed into an all-conference quarterback in football — he was all-conference in baseball, too — and was a starting forward on the basketball team. “I probably could have done more with baseball, but football became my favorite sport,” he says. “My job in basketball was to rebound for my teammates.”

Besides becoming his favorite, football also was his best sport. He was good enough to receive scholarship offers from a handful of colleges, including Atlantic Coast Conference members Wake Forest and Clemson. The decision wasn’t difficult — Williams’ father had played tackle at the Winston-Salem school, and besides, Craven had grown up in the Baptist church.

“When I got there, they immediately moved me to fullback and that was a good thing,” he says. “That’s when Norman Snead was there as a quarterback — I never would have played stuck behind him. So I became a blocking back for Norman Snead. I did get to play a lot, but let’s just say that I had more desire than ability. I did enjoy it, and I got a great education at a fine institution, which I still appreciate.”

He graduated with a bachelor’s in philosophy in 1962 and enrolled at Southeastern Theological Seminary, where he earned his doctorate three years later. “I was anticipating the probability of the parish ministry,” he says. “Vietnam was under way, and the Navy had a plan that if you signed up after your second year of seminary, you’d be assured immediately after graduation of going in as a chaplain.

“I had all but completed the process of joining the Navy when the president of Wake Forest got in touch with me and asked if I’d like to come back there after I graduated from Southeastern. That got me to think about what I really enjoyed, and I figured out if I could one day be the dean of students, than that would be my life’s ambition.”

Williams was hired as an assistant director of alumni development. He had been there for nearly four years — “I felt I was effective in it,” he says — when he came into contact with Dr. Sam Spencer, president of Mary Baldwin College, then an all-women’s school in Staunton, Va.

“I was looking for someone to be my vice president for development,” says Spencer, now retired and living outside Charlotte. “Once I interviewed Craven, I knew he was the guy we needed. He had the personality that I was sure would help him be successful in fund-raising. He had charm and he had a drive to succeed.”

A tireless worker, Williams excelled at his job despite wearing a groove in the road up and down the highway to Richmond, where he worked toward his doctorate at Union Theological Seminary, like Mary Baldwin a Presbyterian school. He completed his requirements in 1973, about the same time that Spencer, now general vice president of Davidson College, came calling again.

“I had the same kind of need,” Spencer recalls, “and Craven was the first person I thought of. By then I knew that all of the positive traits I thought he possessed were true. He was a creative thinker — a very ambitious person in the best of ways. He was there before other people got to the office, and he usually was there after everyone else had left.”

In 1976, he was named president of Gardner-Webb College, now a university, at age 35. Williams, his first wife and their two young children — a son, Jay, now 36 and an attorney in Mount Airy, and a daughter, Lee, 35, and an accountant in Cary — moved to a house just off the first fairway of River Bend Country Club between Boiling Springs and Shelby.

“Dad didn’t play a whole lot of golf then,” says Jay, “which is ironic because he loves to play now. He was always working — for my entire life, he was up and gone to work before we were out of bed. He ate, slept and breathed whatever he was doing.”

That included time with his kids. “He’d go to great lengths to incorporate activities that we were involved in. He coached my Pee Wee teams, and you never saw a more competitive person. He just didn’t like to lose at anything — he still doesn’t.”

Williams firmly passed along the “no pain, no gain” mantra to Jay and Lee. When he was in the seventh grade, Jay found two pairs of boxing gloves under the tree on Christmas Day. “We’d go out in the driveway and I can remember him beating on me with these big ’ol gloves,” Jay says with a laugh. “If I got in one good shot, I felt lucky. My dad’s always been a person I idolized — we still talk several times a week.”

As  the calendar turned on 10 years at Gardner-Webb, Williams yearned for a new challenge. “Things were going well at the time in terms of enrollment and gift income,” he says. “I’ve always maintained that you should leave a place a year or two before they want you to leave, and that seemed like a good time to look for something different.”

He had nearly two decades on his resume as a college administrator and during that time he had been occasionally frustrated with his lack of business acumen. “I had relied heavily on a wonderful vice president for business and finance — he’s with me now at Greensboro College — but I wanted to see if I could do something on my own without having a board of trustees to protect me from making mistakes,” he says.

Jo Ellen Williams Ammons had married into a family with a successful construction business in Raleigh, so with access to “good advice and counsel,” Craven moved to the Triangle and launched Capitol Dominion Corp., a property management operation. “When I started the business, I would go into the office every morning and deal with the mail and the other office things, then in the afternoon I’d be out doing the work managing the properties,” he says. “I didn’t hire a bookkeeper for six months, because I wanted to learn about the business side, which I did. As I began to hire people, I learned what it meant to make a payroll, to pay the benefits and taxes. That knowledge has helped me at Greensboro College. I still have the same reliance on my vice president for business and finance, but now I know how to ask him better questions.”

Over the next eight years, Capitol Dominion was involved in projects in Raleigh, North Raleigh, Cary and Wilmington “and we spent considerable time in Nags Head,” Williams says. “There were 73 people on our payroll and we were doing well. As those successes were happening, I would think after a property sale that this was good and will be good for the children someday, but it’s really not satisfying me — the psychic rewards, if you will — like I’d experienced in education.”

As fate would have it, Dr. Sam Spencer entered his life again. Recently retired, he was serving as a consultant for Academic Search, a college administration search service in Washington, D.C. Greensboro College’s presidency was vacant and Spencer placed a call to Williams. “His call asking if I’d be interested in coming back came at a time when I was interested in coming back,” Williams says. “The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.”

Williams found a willing buyer of Capitol Dominion in his “No. 1 lieutenant,” Robert Oates. The sale would be completed in 20 percent increments during the next five years, and Craven and Judith moved to Greensboro.

They got there just as the school was seeking re-accreditation with the Southern Association of College and Schools, a once-a-decade procedure. The administration, trustees and faculty had been required to complete a self-study of the college, which they presented to Williams. The exhausting report came to a jaw-dropping conclusion: Greensboro College needed a $45 million upgrade.

As is his wont — aching knees and all — Williams rolled up his sleeves and went to work. He launched a campaign, “New Dimensions in the Liberal Arts,” aimed at raising $40 million over an unspecified time period. He shook every hand he could reach and rarely turned down an opportunity to speak — all the better to raise the college’s heretofore sleepy profile.

By August 2001 the $40 million mark was within reach. A new campaign was formed — “Campaign for Greensboro College: A Promise to Keep” is divided into two consecutive $30 million drives, the first of which is now in its silent phase. By 2013, the year of the college’s 175th anniversary, fund-raising since Williams’ arrival could approach $100 million.

“Greensboro College has been what you’d call a landlock institution,” he says. “We’ve got 40 acres sitting right here in the historic district with residential all around us, and that’s been somewhat of a hindrance in developing programs and activities.

“Two years ago, we bought an old YMCA that’s a block and a half away. Where student activities had been housed in a 10,000-square-foot building, they’re now in a 74,000-square-foot building. This year, we bought a 30-acre tract a half-mile from here that we’re converting into a sports park. Student housing’s also been an issue for us — we recently bought a motel and converted it into the Inn at Greensboro College, and 110 students are living there. These are the gains we’ve made that we need to consolidate.”

Williams’ competitive itch still must be scratched, whether he’s at work or play. His new knees allow him to take advantage of the racquetball courts on campus — when queried as to how often he plays, he asks a visitor, “do you want to go play now?”

He got into competitive cycling in his 40s, following Jay’s lead via a hand-me-down bike. “It was easy on the knees — the best activity for you because there’s no impact involved,” say Williams, who, while only infrequently riding competitively on weekends, still manages 20-mile excursions after work three or four days a week. Then there’s the occasional round of golf and the social and business opportunities it brings.

Fall Saturdays are reserved for Wake Forest football games, where he inherited four season tickets from his father when he passed away. Jay, also a Wake graduate, doesn’t buy season tickets — “I’m content to mooch off my dad,” he says.

When Greensboro College doesn’t have a home basketball game and Wake Forest does, Williams can be found at Joel Coliseum, displaying the same fervor and intensity he brought to the football field just a few miles away more than 40 years ago.

It’s that passion that doesn’t allow him to listen to Demon Deacon basketball games on radio or watch on TV. “I might have it on and I’ll check the score when I walk past, but I will not sit and watch or listen to them,” he says. “I can be very objective watching other teams play, but my objectivity goes away when Wake Forest plays. I have promised Judith that I am not going to have my heart attack watching sports, that I’ll have mine playing sports.”

An ordained minister who enjoys working Sundays from time to time — he’ll substitute preach at Rumple Presbyterian Church in Blowing Rock, where he and Judith maintain a summer home, this month — Williams thinks often about a church ministry in the future.

“When I was younger, I don’t think I had the patience for that assignment, and I’ve admired those who do,” he says. “I have never allowed myself to forget that I did have a sense of calling at one time that said to me there’s a special work that God wants me to perform. I’m still open to that at any time.”

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