Making a Splash, and a Maryland Promise
Barrier-breaking Former UMD Diver Creates Scholarship for Incentive Awards Students
On a balmy summer’s day in the 1950s, 11-year-old Jason Williams came across a group of divers at the Clifton Park pool in Baltimore. He was so inspired by their athleticism, precision and grace that he began imitating the young men.
Seven years of practice later, he was admitted to the University of Maryland on a partial scholarship not only as the first African-American diver here, but in the entire Atlantic Coast Conference.
Now retired from Los Angeles County government, Williams ’66 is pledging $50,000 to help students in need by establishing the Ralph and Jason Williams/W.D. Prater Maryland Promise Scholarship to support students in the Incentive Awards Program.
It’s among the first gifts to the new Clark Challenge for the Maryland Promise, established with a $50 million investment from the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation and the university. If fully matched by gifts from other donors, the program will become a $100 million fund to support need-based scholarships for students in Maryland and D.C.
“These are the individuals from underserved Baltimore-Washington areas who need scholarships,” said Williams, who signed the gift agreement and met with students this week. “In giving back, I’m giving back to individuals and neighborhoods from whence I myself came, with a poor background growing up on the east side of Baltimore.”
He recalls buying an instructional book as a boy to teach himself proper springboard diving forms and techniques and made the team at Baltimore Polytechnic High School by the time he was a junior.
In his senior year, Williams won the city diving championship, earning him enough attention to receive the small scholarship to the University of Maryland.
In a time period fraught with racial tension, Williams said his teammates and coaches saw beyond the color of his skin. “There wasn’t a single hint of discrimination in terms of how I was treated by my teammates or coaches,” said Williams. “They valued me, not because of my color, but because of my personality and the skill set I brought to the team. In other words, they valued me based upon the human being that I am.”
But this wasn’t the case everywhere. He recalled a team trip to a meet in North Carolina, which was followed by a restaurant stop. The waiter took the orders of all the athletes before him, then turned to Williams and refused him service. The rest of the team canceled their orders, and they all quietly left, in shock.
During his time at the university, Williams was also a member of the Air Force ROTC, graduating as a 2nd lieutenant. “The most important asset I left the university with was the skill set I received from the Air Force ROTC,” Williams said, noting that these skills were akin to leadership training and carried him through his career.
Shortly after graduating, Williams moved from Baltimore to Los Angeles and began working in the Department of Public Health. There, he met his boss W.D. Prater, who would become one of the most influential people in Williams’ life. “Mr. Prater and his wife were like surrogate parents to me,” said Williams. “But he didn’t treat me with favoritism.”
Williams followed in Prater’s footsteps and became a department head at the age of 35, the youngest in LA County history at the time. He last served as director of hospital administration before shifting to the insurance industry with AXA Advisors.
Now Williams is focusing on serving others and giving back, a decision largely influenced by his brother, Ralph.
“My older brother was a dreamer, and I saw his dreams come true. I was a dreamer, and I’ve seen my dreams come true as well. The backbone to all of that, for my brother, myself, and for many others, was education. Education has been the key to success.”
Williams also named his gift in honor of his late mentor, who would say to him: “Remember where you came from. Bloom where you are planted.”
During his busy visit to campus, he shared his story in meetings with student-athletes, veterans, several classes and the IAP students. They come from Baltimore City and Prince George’s County high schools and receive full financial support and mentoring in a nurturing community.
Jacqueline Wheeler Lee, director of the Incentive Awards Program, said Williams is a great model for the students to follow.
“The students who were present to witness him writing his check were able to make the connection between the donor and the opportunity to continue their education,” she said. “It was powerful for them to see philanthropy in action, especially from someone who looked like them.”