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Epilogue | Maurice J. Williams

After war, Maurice Williams turned to a life of service

ST. PETERSBURG — During the worst of the blitz in London, under nightly bombardment by the Germans, a young Army officer struck a deal with God.

Should he survive, Maurice J. Williams vowed, he would spend the rest of his life repaying humanity.

Thirty-three years later, Mr. Williams, then a deputy director for USAID and a chief U.S. negotiator, was addressing other diplomats at the Paris Peace Accords, laying out President Richard Nixon's plan to end the Vietnam war. Mr. Williams also stood in for Henry Kissinger and led postwar aid talks with North Vietnam.

He funneled relief to starving and shaken people around the world, victims of natural and man-made disasters from Peru to the Philippines, Nicaragua and Bangladesh. He expanded his grasp on global crises in the 1970s through his work with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

He served as executive director of the now-defunct World Food Council in Rome, an arm of the United Nations. After retiring in 1986, he taught at Johns Hopkins University and Eckerd College, wrote books and offered his expertise as a consultant.

Mr. Williams, an international development specialist who tackled worldwide poverty and hunger in a distinguished career, died May 10 in Bethesda, Md., of complications from a fall. He was 89.

He was charged with training American soldiers in England during World War II, but never had time to teach them much.

"Mostly salute-and-shoot," he lamented years later. Heavy losses of untrained U.S. troops weighed on his mind.

He learned brutality early, when as a child he moved with his French-speaking family from New Brunswick, Canada, to Kansas City, Mo. "Kids liked to beat him up on the playground to hear him yell for help in French," said his wife, Joan. "He learned to keep quiet pretty fast."

Mr. Williams' speed at learning catapulted him through the ranks of federal government jobs, starting with several years in the CIA. After joining the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1958, he organized relief efforts in the Near East and South Asia, and was promoted to deputy director in 1970. He worked closely with Nixon, a man he admired, and served as a special emissary for the president and the secretary of state in high-level negotiations.

In the early 1970s, his negotiations with the North Vietnamese led to the release of prisoners of war. "That was such a coup," his wife said.

He presented Nixon's plan to end the war at the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, which contributed to a temporary halt in the fighting.

He chaired the development assistance committee of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development from 1974 to 1978, a group that researches solutions to global crises such as hunger. He urged helping poor countries become self-sufficient, especially through agriculture.

"In Maury's time, that wasn't done," his wife said. "It was, 'Send them money,' and they would siphon it off the top and maybe it doesn't even get where it was supposed to go."

Mr. Williams and his wife met at the Academy for Senior Professionals at Eckerd College, which Mr. Williams joined in the 1990s while splitting his time between Bethesda and St. Petersburg. Mr. Williams became an adjunct professor at Eckerd College, and helped develop the college's global studies major in the late 1990s.

"He was humble, that was the stunning thing," said Mona Bagasao, who directs the college's Center for Spiritual Life. "It took you serious time to even find out who he was and what he had done."

After his wife, Betty Bath Williams, died in 2006, he began to see more of Joan Dunn, whose husband had died in 2002. They faithfully attended a Friday-morning foreign affairs group, where he impressed her with his acuity and deliberative style.

They married in October. Joan Dunn Williams said she will miss her husband's reflections in the evening, after they had turned off the television and everything was quiet.

"He was a pretty silent person," she said. "But when he finally got around to telling you, it was so right."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Maurice Jacoutot Williams

Born: Nov. 13, 1920.

Died: May 10, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Joan Dunn Williams; sons Jon, Stephen and Peter Williams; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

After war, Maurice Williams turned to a life of service 05/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 22, 2010 7:32pm]
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