ALMA — When Claire Williams ’24 walks through Alma College, she’s retracing steps taken by both of her parents, as well as her grandfather and great-grandfather.
Williams, a first-year student from Brooklyn, Mich., is one of only an estimated handful of four-generation students to have attended Alma in the institution’s 134-year history. Keith ’84 and Michaeleen (Linehan) ’85, her parents, both graduated from Alma, as well as her grandfather, Charles ’51, and great-grandfather, Clarence ’22.
“I chose Alma in large part because the students, staff and faculty make it feel like a family, so I guess it’s appropriate that so many members of my family went here,” Claire Williams said. “I don’t think about it all the time, but sometimes, it really strikes me. One hundred years ago was a long time, and here I am, doing some of the same things my great-grandfather did on campus.”
NEW YORK CONNECTION
The Williams family’s long ties to Alma began with the late Clarence, who arrived on campus during the tumultuous period of the flu pandemic in 1918.
A native of the Thumb area, Charles Williams believes his father likely chose to attend Alma because of its proximity to his hometown. Clarence was a fine student, but a better athlete, who excelled on the baseball diamond and was a member of the 1922 Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA) champion Scots team. In 1979, he was elected to the college’s Athletic Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Alumni.
“As the story goes, my father was offered a contract by the Detroit Tigers to play ball, but he decided to be a teacher instead. He figured he was getting ready to start a family soon, and he needed to make money. That’s pretty funny to think about nowadays,” said Charles Williams, now 91.
After college, Clarence Williams moved to Auburn, New York, just outside of Syracuse, to begin what would become a 40-year career as a high school teacher. Although he had left the state, Clarence never forgot his alma mater. It’s believed that he recruited more than 150 of his students — many of whom were the children of immigrants, and looked to him as a role model — to attend the college. After he left teaching, Clarence founded the Topical Book Review Company, a publishing firm that was passed down to his son and later, his grandson, Keith Williams.
In addition to his students, Clarence Williams also suggested his son attend the college, which is what Charles did, starting soon after the end of World War II.
“Chuck,” as he is known, became heavily involved in athletics and student affairs during his time at the college; he ran track and cross country for four years, and served as president of the student council and a member of the co-op council.
“I was pretty good at track and cross country,” Chuck recalled. “During my last two years, all the big guys on the team graduated, so when my coaches asked me, I said, ‘Sure, I could throw the javelin.’ These people who were throwing were close to 200 pounds, and I was about 6 feet (tall) and 150 pounds. But in my junior year, I took third in the MIAA in the javelin. So, I didn’t do too bad.”
Charles was also a three-year house manager for the Delta Gamma Tau fraternity, which, he noted, would not be possible now.
“In my sophomore year, the fraternity president came into the house and said to me, ‘The house manager is not returning this year. Would you like the job?’ I said yes. It was just that simple,” Charles recalled. “Now, I understand, they switch those positions every semester. It’s a little more organized.”
Charles went on to work as a ceramics engineer at Dow Chemical Company before taking over his father’s publishing firm and moving back to Skaneateles, New York. There, he and wife Nancy raised Keith, and continued to imbue the love of Alma College that his father had passed down to him.
“We would always come back to Michigan for homecoming. Those are the first memories of my grandfather, father and I all together, and they are some of my fondest memories,” Keith Williams said. “In particular, I remember we would always eat breakfast with the football team, and to a little kid, those big guys all looked like superheroes. It made me feel pretty special that they would hang out with me.”
A COUPLE MEETS AT ALMA
When it came time to pick a college, Keith explained, the majority of his classmates headed to the East Coast. He decided to attend Alma well before the end of his senior year of high school.
Meanwhile, back in the Great Lakes State, Michealeen Linehan was interested in pursuing a career in education. A native of Adrian, she considered going to Adrian College, but decided instead to attend Alma. She said at the time, Alma was one of the few colleges in the state that would place prospective teachers in actual classrooms for evaluation and observation.
“It gives you a sense, right away, of what being a teacher is like. I knew immediately when I walked into a classroom that this is what I wanted to do,” said Michaeleen, who goes by “Missy.”
Keith and Missy recalled meeting at a fraternity party right before Christmas break in 1981. They hit it off immediately and set up a first date at the Big Boy restaurant in Alma. They married in 1986, settled in Brooklyn, and had three daughters: Kelsey, Natalie and Claire.
“Our family has a cottage in Harbor Springs, and for as long as that Big Boy was around, we would stop there to eat on the way and they would tell their story,” Claire Williams recalled. “We definitely had a family connection to this area.”
Keith and Missy Williams both went on to have successful careers — Keith as the head of Topical Book Review and Missy as a fourth-grade teacher. Both credit Alma College for a good deal of their success.
“When we were at Alma, Keith and I both loved the small school atmosphere, and the close, personal relationships you build with your professors,” Missy said. “There’s a sense of caring, of being there for you, and wanting to help. We’ve both benefited from those relationships and we’re seeing Claire benefit in the same way.”
In recent years, Keith and Missy WIlliams have established the Don ’56 and Joan ’57 Godfrey Endowed Scholarship, in honor of Joan Godfrey, who was Missy’s supervising teacher at Alma and has remained a close family friend ever since. The award is designated for students majoring in education, with a preference in elementary education.
Their endowment is similar to one undertaken by Charles Williams, who established the Clarence Williams Endowed Scholarship in his father’s honor for students from the state of New York.
“We were very fortunate to attend this great school, and we had people along the way who made it easier for us to be successful. We thought it would be important to pay it forward,” Keith Williams said.
Now, Claire Williams is carrying on the family’s legacy. Her older sisters decided to attend other colleges, so her decision came with a bit of interest — if she didn’t attend Alma, the chain would break. In the end, the familiarity she feels on campus, along with an opportunity to join the college’s cheer and STUNT teams, made the decision easy for her.
“My parents didn’t put any pressure on me and they said they would support any decision I made. But it’s pretty interesting being a fourth-generation student. I didn’t realize my great-grandfather was in the Athletic Hall of Fame until just recently — and here I am, doing athletics myself,” she said.
The pandemic has made her first year challenging, but as she points out, her great-grandfather started at Alma during a pandemic and made himself a success. She feels she can, too — largely because she’s in the hands of a community that cares about her, one that has cared for her family for 100 years and counting.
“It’s pretty funny to think that I feel the same way that my parents felt when they were in college. My professors are like family, and the cheer and STUNT team is the same way,” Claire said. “They push you to be your best, but they’re there for you, too. I feel like, in four years, I’m going to be the best Claire I can be.”