On January 20, 1961, six-year-old Linda Williams sat watching John F. Kennedy deliver his inaugural address on a television in rural Appalachia. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” the president said, “ask what you can do for your country.” The young girl was transfixed. Since hearing those words, Linda Williams has pursued a life of public service and volunteerism inspired by Kennedy’s call.
Williams’s life is rich with similar historic anecdotes that shaped the woman she is today. At the age of five, she lived directly across the street from her elementary school in Montclair, New Jersey, when bussing was ordered to integrate the schools. A one-minute walk to fifth grade suddenly became a bus ride downtown, where she attended classes at a nearly all-black elementary school. “It opened my eyes,” she says. “It was one of the best experiences of my life.” A year later, Williams went to live with her mother in Memphis, where she witnessed “such poverty and such abuse of black culture.” “I was really becoming quite an activist at the age of twelve or thirteen,” she says. “And then of course we lived through the assassination of Martin Luther King and I think that just spurred on my intensity in social justice.” Williams moved back to the East Coast and began tutoring kids in tough neighborhoods in New Jersey. So began a life of tireless service that continues to this day.
Linda Williams’s commitment to island causes borders on manic. She has served on a dizzying number of town committees, nonprofit boards, and agencies. She is currently the vice chairman of the Planning Board and the chairman of the HDC, the Nantucket Housing Authority, and the Nantucket Planning and Economic Development Commission, among others. She mentors children, campaigns for the disabled, and has devoted herself to causes across the spectrum, from serving as an EMT for the fire department, to being president of Big Brothers Big Sisters, to volunteering for Hospice, to coaching basketball at the Boys & Girls Club. On and on, there is no limit to Williams’s service on the island.
It would be impossible for any other single human being to be more active on this island than
she. There are days where you would swear Williams has a stunt double, as she could be organizing the annual beach volleyball tournament by morning, umpiring a Little League game in the afternoon, and then lead- ing a Planning Board meeting by night.
Her story on Nantucket traces back to her grandparents who began coming to the island in 1929. “My grandparents were our saviors growing up,” she says. “They taught me to make a difference in the world and give back to the community that you’re in.” Watching her grandparents on both sides dedicate their time and money to various volunteer efforts continues to motivate her public service today. “There is always something you can do,” she says. “You don’t have to get involved with the HDC every Tuesday, Thursday, and weekend. You can sign up for Meals on Wheels for one day. You can donate your time at a church fair. There are so many ways to get involved on Nantucket.”
Williams moved full-time to the island in 1973, and has since raised three children and five foster children. Her oldest, Aryn, is a Smith graduate who went on to earn a master’s degree in environmental law and then a doctor- ate in environmental science. “She’s a little overachiever,” Williams laughs. “She also went down the public-service road.” Meanwhile, William’s son, Colin, took on a different form of national service by entering the Marines and completing a tour in Afghanistan.
With the majority of her days devoted to volunteer work, Williams says she lives “hand to mouth,” but feels rich in many ways. Whatever time she has outside of her public service she spends working as a land consultant, writing occasional news stories, and doing other forms of independent consulting. “You sort of just make do, you just make ends meet,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ve always made sure that all my kids got to travel and all the kids went to college.” She adds, “I’ve had a very fortunate life. If I can make a difference for other people so they feel like they’ve had a happy day or a fortunate life, that’s great to me.”