Ernie Williamson, longtime Educational Foundation director, dies at 79

Ernie Williamson, former Tar Heel football player and executive director of the Educational Foundation for 30 years, died March 6. He was 79.

"The University of North Carolina had no better friend nor greater ambassador than Ernie Williamson," said Director of Athletics Dick Baddour. "Thousands of student-athletes over the past five decades were given an opportunity for a great education and a chance to compete in intercollegiate athletics due to his tireless efforts leading the Educational Foundation. Our Tar Heel family will deeply miss Ernie and his friendship."

Williamson, a native of Crewe, Va., played football at Carolina in 1946 and headed the Educational Foundation from 1957-1986. Williamson, a lineman, was a teammate of legendary Tar Heel halfback Charlie Justice when Carolina posted an 8-2-1 record, won the Southern Conference title and played Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day.

Williamson began his professional football career after just one year at Carolina, but that career ended prematurely because of a knee injury. He played pro football with the NFL's Washington Redskins and the All-America Conference's Los Angeles Dons.

Williamson earned an undergraduate degree from Carolina in 1951 and a master's from the University a year later. He then became an assistant football, track and wrestling coach at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. He served as an assistant football coach for two years and was head coach from 1954-56.

In 1957, Williamson returned to his alma mater to lead the Educational Foundation, a non-profit foundation that raises money for scholarships for student-athletes. He led that organization for three decades and remained as director of the endowment and consultant for many years after stepping down as its director in December 1986.

Williamson received the William R. Davie Award from the Board of Trustees in 1986 to recognize his distinguished service to the University. He was one of the first dozen people to receive this prestigious award. He also was the recipient of a Priceless Gem from the Department of Athletics in 1982 and a Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1997.

"Ernie was one of the nicest people I have ever known," says Moyer Smith, who succeeded Williamson as executive director of the foundation. "He could walk into a meeting with a five-dollar UNC ash tray and walk out with a $5,000 donation. He was just such a genuinely good, honest, friendly person who never met a stranger. Obviously, he loved the University so much and that just came through any time he met someone."

Prior to coming to Carolina in 1946, Williamson enlisted in the Navy and became a member of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station service team where he played for Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown. He served in the South Pacific during World War II.

Asked in 1973 why he did what he did for a living, Williamson answered: "I love this University and I believe all our [Educational Foundation] members do. In the course of my many years here I've been offered twice as much salary to go elsewhere. But we weren't put on this earth to do things just for money.

"You know, it took a world war for me and my three brothers to realize the need for a college education. A lot of youngsters today need athletics to get that same education. If it hadn't been for the war and getting out and seeing places and meeting people, I'd still be up on that farm in Virginia."

The night Williamson received the Davie Award, John Swofford, then Carolina's director of athletics, said, "We're honoring one of the great human beings this University has ever had come through its ranks. For almost 30 years, Ernie Williamson has personified excellence in his field. He is the best at what he does -- fundraising. Buildings have been built here because of his excellence, and thousands of young people have had the opportunity for an education because of him. He's done all of this with grace, dignity and good humor. Ernie has walked with kings but never lost the common touch. He is one of those rare individuals who is both respected and loved."

A memorial service was held March 11 at the Dean E. Smith Center. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations be made to the Ernie Williamson Football Scholarship through the Educational Foundation at P.O. Box 2446, Chapel Hill, NC 27515.