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December 2014

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N.Y. Retiree Helps Students Engineer their Futures

Long Island, N.Y., Local 25 retiree Richard Williams is a man who literally wears many hats.

When the 71-year-old first steps in front of one of the many crowds of students he frequently addresses, he proudly dons his bright red ball cap with the words "U.S. Marine Veteran" emblazoned across the front.

"I always wear that hat," said Williams, who served for six years in the early 1960s. "It's to symbolize my support for our young people who are around the world putting themselves in harm's way for us."

Next, he puts on what he wore for the next 32 years — an electrician's hardhat. "It protected me on the job — me and my hard head," he laughs, eager to show students one of the tools of his lifelong trade.

Since he and his wife moved to Las Vegas in 2004, Williams — or "Corporal Willy" — has been a local champion of technology education for students young and old. Not only does he serve as an adjunct instructor for engineering courses at the College of Southern Nevada, but Williams has volunteered countless hours to help school children learn the basics of science, technology, engineering and math, or "STEM" as it's known in the education world.

"This is a beautiful way to teach kids to be creative," he said. "What I can teach in class is what the industry needs now. We can't even fill up our engineering schools in this country. So that's the whole name of the game — trying to get youngsters interested in technology."

Judging by the cavernous tool shop Williams built on the side of his Las Vegas home — replete with a high-tech mill router, a computer-controlled laser cutter and other machines — students would be hard-pressed to find an area instructor with more knowledge on how to build something. Adding to the technical skills he learned as an electrician, Williams started tinkering with computer-aided drafting programs more than a decade ago. A few years ago, he became certified to teach a program called SolidWorks — a 3D design, modeling and manufacturing software program.

"That's what I teach the students at the college," Williams said. "You can get a good job if you can learn SolidWorks well enough," which he said is used by engineers at NASA and many other multi-national companies around the world.

For those too young to work with drills and saws, Williams has age-appropriate learning activities for them, too. In his classroom demonstrations in the Clark County School district in Las Vegas, students explore and experiment with pulleys, levers, weights and the basics of large bridge construction. The activities give students a jump start on understanding the whys and hows of big mathematical, mechanical and scientific facts.

Williams also volunteers time to help girls and young women further their interests in technology. He has worked with area Girl Scouts councils to bring more science into their activities. Williams also spent a few years teaching at an engineering summer camp for girls, sponsored by the local Society of Women Engineers group. The gap between men and women in technology-related careers remains significant, with women comprising less than 30 percent of the country's science and engineering workforce, according to the National Science Foundation.

It's clear to see where Williams got his drive for hard work. His ancestors migrated from Italy to New York in the early 1900s and took the kinds of nose-to-the-grindstone jobs that helped build the city. "Our fingerprints are on a lot of things in the New York City skyline — Manhattan Bank, the Empire State Building, a lot more." One of his older twin brothers helped construct the World Trade Center towers. "All of it union," he said. His father and two brothers were both members of Long Island's Steamfitters Union Local 638. "Labor is a family tradition."

The Brooklyn native recalls his years continuing in his family's construction legacy. "I knew the work, I enjoyed it, and I was always given apprentices to work with who I could help teach the trade to."

But in 1998, an on-the-job accident ended Williams's electrical career. No longer able to do the kind of heavy-duty manual labor required of a journeyman, Williams was forced to leave the trade on disability.

Living in North Palm Beach, Fla., partly to rehabilitate after his injury, he made the most of his imposed downtime, which allowed him the freedom to pursue burgeoning interests in science and technology. "I also missed working with all those fellow hardhats and apprentices," he said.

That was when the light bulb went off: help teach the next generation the kinds of technology skills they'd need to succeed in school and find good-paying, middle-class jobs. Williams began getting involved with the local school district in 2001 and quickly found he was able to help teach lessons in classrooms, which he took to the next level after moving to Las Vegas 10 years ago.

"Richard has been extremely beneficial for our students," said David Philippi, who is the community partnership coordinator at Northwest Career and Technical Academy in Las Vegas. Williams was one of the founding members of the advisory committee for the academy's engineering program. Since 2008, Williams has helped judge school competitions, assisted budding job applicants through mock interviews, helped with career days, taken pictures to document campus events and more. "He's got the energy of someone one-third of his age, and he's a great role model for kids," Philippi said.

Between working in the classroom and helping promote the sciences, Williams said he's been allowed to spread something of a personal philosophy to legions of students: "Scientia potentia est," Latin for "knowledge is power." He said he also always leaves school speaking engagements with an aphorism for the students to practice: "Never put a wishbone where your backbone ought to be."

"Most of the good things that I have acquired in my lifetime have been because of knowledge I gained," he said. "Abilities come with knowledge. For those who never challenge themselves to use their brains or their backs, nothing will be gained. But if you sacrifice time to learn something to get paid for, you're going to be good in the long run. I learned it, my brothers learned it, and my kids learned it. And guess what? We're all doing well."

To hear more from Williams and to watch him at work in his shop, visit The link is case-sensitive.


Long Island, N.Y., Local 25 member Richard Williams has dedicated much of his retirement to helping students develop their science and technology skills.