Retired judge remembered as ‘gentle hero’

Published 8:45 am Wednesday, January 20, 2010

COURTLAND—He was a gentle man, honest and fair on the bench, loyal and devoted to his family and friends.

He loved his country and fought valiantly in Europe during World War II, where he was wounded three times. He was a “gentle hero.”

Those were a few comments from people who knew and respected former judge Benjamin A. Williams, who died Saturday at age 90.

A Courtland native, Williams served as clerk of Southampton County Circuit Court until 1977, after which he was appointed as a judge for the Fifth Judicial Circuit of Virginia, serving the counties of Isle of Wight and Southampton and the City of Suffolk.

He retired in 1986, although he continued to serve as a substitute judge in many of the judicial circuits in Virginia.

Friends remembered him as a soft-spoken man who had something to say.

“He applied the law fairly and was always considerate of those who appeared before him — defendants, witnesses and attorneys,” said attorney Charles “Jimmie” Rowe. “As Circuit Court clerk, he upheld the standard of service established by three generations of McLemores (former clerks who came before him), but it was as a circuit court judge that he excelled.”

Rowe, who lives in Courtland, also said, “I have known Ben for as long as I can remember, and he was always a Virginia gentleman in the finest tradition.”

Frances Moore, 92, of Courtland, who grew up with Williams, said, “Ben was a very sensitive man, who always wanted to be a judge. He was absolutely delighted when he was appointed. And he was a good judge.”

Williams’ friend, Wayne Cosby, who himself recently retired as Southampton County Circuit Court clerk, remembered Williams as an avid rabbit hunter with a great sense of humor.

“I used to go by to see him just to chat,” he said. “He talked about his hunting quite a bit, had some good stories, but actually, I think the rabbits usually won.”

Cosby, a former high school football coach, said he taught Williams’ son, Bob, who became a doctor.

“Ben was very proud of his family,” Cosby went on, adding that William’s other son, Ben, chose to become a lawyer.

Milton and Kitty Futrell agreed that Williams was a solid citizen who loved family, friends, community and country.

Futrell and Williams both served in the U.S. Army and both ended up in Europe during one of the most horrible conflicts in history.

“It was bad,” Futrell said. “Ben couldn’t even talk about it for many years.”

“When he did talk about his experiences, it was with a great deal of emotion,” said Lynda Updike, president of the Southampton County Historical Society.

Updike recalled the first time Williams allowed himself to talk about the war.

“The historical society’s program was the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the beginning of WW II, and Ben was among several veterans who spoke.”

The former captain, with tears running down his face, described for the first time in 60 years, she said, the devastation, including how he witnessed the horrors of a German concentration camp.

“When he finished, there were very few dry eyes in the audience,” she said.

Williams, who was wounded three times, received a Purple Heart with two clusters, the Bronze Star for valor and a Combat Infantryman Badge.

Updike said Williams personified the expression of “like an old shoe.”

“He was comfortable to be around,” she said. “What you saw was what he was — a gentle hero.”