Determined dental alum blazed his own path

Dr. Frank Williams

Frank C. Williams (DEN ’62) knew from a young age that he wanted to get out of his coal-mining hometown. His determination led him to pursue a degree from what is now Case Western Reserve University—and to eventually serve as the first Black president of the Ohio Dental Association.

He would make impacts across organized dentistry and his community until his death in 2019, but his path wasn’t obvious from the start.

Growing up in Beckley, West Virginia, as the youngest of six children, Williams and his brothers were expected to follow in their father’s footsteps and earn a living working deep underground. Determined to take a different (albeit temporary) path, he joined the military instead. 

“For a Black man to move out of Beckley, or any other coal mining town around there, he needed an education—and the only way to pay for that education was through ROTC,” Frank Williams’ daughter, Kristin Williams (DEN ’89; GRS ’05, public health), explained. As the associate dean for admissions and student affairs at Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine, she credits her father with passing down a similar tenacity that has guided her through her own career—as a dentist and an administrator in higher education.

While Frank Williams knew he did not want to be a coal miner, he wasn’t looking for a career in the military either. He enrolled at West Virginia State University and joined the school’s Army ROTC program, which provided the financing necessary to earn his biology degree. Williams served in the military for five years between graduation from West Virginia State and attending dental school.

It was also at West Virginia State where he met his wife, Kristin’s mother, Lydia (Hale) Williams. When it came time to select a dental school for Frank, the couple narrowed their choices to West Virginia State and Western Reserve College. Though they intended to live in West Virginia after dental school, Frank and Lydia chose Western Reserve College, moved to Ohio and never looked back.

“He had a great opportunity [in Cleveland] to basically graduate one day and take over a practice the next,” Kristin Williams said. “Back then, you kind of came out [of school], hung out your shingle—literally—and the patients came.”

While the transition from living in a coal town to college campuses was challenging enough, Kristin Williams recalled her father sharing his experiences with subtle and overt racism as one of only a handful of non-white students at Western Reserve in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

“I remember him telling me he would have to look out in the hallway and see who was there and what you were getting into before stepping out of the room,” she said. “He was looking out for himself and making sure that he could be successful going through the school.” 

Frank Williams would not only earn his degree, but also serve as president of the Ohio State Dental Board and become the first Black person to lead the Ohio Dental Association—an accomplishment that came as no surprise to Kristin. 

“I always saw him leading in some form or fashion,” she said. 

“My father was the first to explain that he came from nothing and he was grateful for everything he had,” Wiliams continued. “He instilled in us from a very early age to be thankful. I think that really came out when he was president of both of these associations. That closed the loop for him of what he felt he should do as a coal miner’s son from West Virginia.”