Ernestine Williams: ahead of her time

This post was updated in April 2024.

Ernestine and C.S. Williams as photographed for church directory.

Ernestine J. Williams didn’t get the chance to attend college. This was somewhat of an unrequited wish, so she did the next best thing by establishing a scholarship that would allow other young people to pursue their post high school educations – and their dreams.

The Ernestine J. Williams Scholarship was established to reward Johnston County high school graduates who have plans to attend a university or community college. It is a renewable scholarship, where recipients are eligible to receive support for up to four years. This goes a long way toward reducing tuition costs, making a real difference for many students and their families.

Evan Raynor, 2015 Williams scholarship recipient.

Evan Raynor, a 2015 graduate of South Johnston High School, was that year’s recipient of the Ernestine J. Williams award. He found the scholarship on NCCF’s website from a Google search about the same time his high school guidance counselor singled him out to apply. Raynor majored in engineering at North Carolina State University said the scholarship made a real difference in his college experience. “I would have had to take out tons of loans and probably commute to State from my home in Benson,” he said. The scholarship allowed him to live on campus. “I am so grateful for this,” he said.

This is exactly the kind of student Williams had in mind when she established the endowment, according to James Narron, NCCF board member and the estate attorney who helped her create the scholarship. And because she never had children of her own, he said the scholarship was her way to leave a legacy. “But it wasn’t about being remembered,” he said. “It was about providing young people with the opportunities she never had.” He also said she had a special affection for Johnston County and wanted to provide for people who would in turn, give back to that community.

Williams and her second husband Bill were fixtures in the Town of Smithfield. They lived in one of the big, pretty Colonial houses built in the 50s and liked to socialize and entertain. “They joined the life of the town in a big way,” Narron said.

Williams was an active member of the First Baptist Church in Smithfield, where Pastor Lee Colbert recalled a “very thoughtful, caring woman” who quietly did things for people. “She was never showy, but she did have a lot of spunk” he said. “I would call her a good conversationalist, who could discuss a lot of topics.”

Narron knew Williams in her later years and said she retained “a sparkle” that made her attractive and fun to be around.

Ernestine Williams with Rebecca Lee’s daughter.

Jane Davis, her goddaughter, echoed that sentiment. “I loved to be with Ernestine and miss her to this day,” she said, describing her as somewhat of a surrogate mother after her own mom died. “She was very involved with me throughout my entire life and served as an inspiration.”

While Williams never had a chance to further her formal education, she was successful by any measure. The Harnett County native taught herself about the stock market, investing in Humble Oil in the 1930s before it became ExxonMobil. Her early investments paid off.

Williams was widowed at a very young age and took over two furniture stores after her first husband died, not just maintaining the business but growing its profitability as well. “She was ahead of her time,” Davis said.

Davis described Williams’ style as worthy of coverage in Southern Living magazine. “Her home was beautiful, her landscaping was gorgeous, her cooking was delicious and she dressed fashionably and impeccably,” she said. “Ernestine was an elegant lady and gracious hostess, as well as an astute business woman.”

Ernestine Williams in front of her home.

Close neighbor Rebecca Lee also called her a role model. “She was very smart and had business sense, back in the day when that was rare for women,” she said. “Ernestine was ahead of her time.”

All who knew her remarked on her golf ability. “She didn’t just play well for a female,” said Lee. “She played well for anyone; she played with the men.”

Davis could not speak about Williams without getting teary-eyed. “She was just a first-class woman in all ways,” she said.