Charles M. Williams, 94; Harvard finance professor
Using the case study method, Charles M. Williams made banking and finance intriguing for Harvard Business School students who signed up for his elective course in management of financial institutions.
“Many leaders of finance took this course because he was a legend,’’ said Samuel L. Hayes III, a professor emeritus at the school and a former student of Dr. Williams. “In accounting, you’re used to debits and credits, but he made it a detective story.’’
As he influenced generations of future executives and professors with his observations about commercial banking, Dr. Williams “was a master at making finance come alive,’’ Hayes said.
Dr. Williams, the George Gund professor of commercial banking emeritus at Harvard Business School, died of congestive heart failure on Nov. 17 in the North Hill retirement community in Needham. He was 94.
C.D. Spangler, a former president of the University of North Carolina, called Dr. Williams “the most prominent banking professor in the world.’’
“He was at more banking conventions as a presenter than anyone else, and my guess is that every senior banking executive in the world knew him,’’ said Spangler, who studied with him.
Along with Hayes, other students of Dr. Williams who became faculty members at Harvard Business School include a former dean, John H. McArthur.
Professors who teach with the case study method use real life examples to facilitate discussions among students. Dr. Williams was known for how well he used the approach to illuminate the world of banking.
“Charlie taught real-life principles in the context of real-life situations,’’ Hayes said.
Born on a hilltop farm in Romney, W.Va., that was given to his great-great-grandfather for having served in the Revolutionary War, Dr. Williams learned the rudiments of finance from his father, who was a banker.
“My father,’’ Dr. Williams told Harvard Business School, “gave me a respect for the fundamentals: Know your customers and work with them.’’
Dr. Williams also gained a sense of ethical propriety.
“I still marvel at his sense of integrity, as he had a strong moral core,’’ said his son, Holland, of Boise, Idaho, part of the third generation of the family to work in banking. “He had this capacity to do the right thing and he could come so quickly to the proper solution.’’
Dr. Williams’s son added: “He was a vocal critic of a lot of the business environment today, as he felt there have been a lot of moral lapses.’’
Dr. Williams graduated from Washington and Lee University in Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in history and economics and was 19 when he was accepted at Harvard Business School, from which he graduated in 1939 with an MBA.
He worked for two years in a bank in New York City before joining the Navy.
Originally a pacifist, he became aware of the threat posed by the Nazi regime during bicycle and motorcycle trips through Europe in 1937 and 1939. Dr. Williams enlisted before the United States declared war and became involved in World War II.
He was assigned to the Navy Supply Corps School, which was on the Harvard Business School campus, and then became paymaster on the USS Lexington. A Japanese attack sank the aircraft carrier in the Pacific in 1942. Dr. Williams and other crewmembers escaped to a rescue ship.
Later in the war, he was assigned to teach in a Navy ROTC program at the University of Michigan. He asked the business school dean if he could take graduate courses, but the dean put him to work teaching business.
He left the Navy in 1947 as a lieutenant commander and was hired as an assistant professor at Harvard Business School.
In 1951, he received a doctorate in commercial science. He became a professor five years later.
More students wanted to take his management of financial institutions elective than his classes could accommodate. Dr. Williams was known for prowling lecture hall aisles with a rubber-tipped pointer that he used as a walking stick but could suddenly point at a student when seeking an answer or a viewpoint.
“He had his students in the palm of his hand,’’ said Paul Judy, a retired financier from Northfield, Ill. “He had a theatrical style, as well as substance.’’
Judy, who had worked for Dr. Williams as a research assistant, said he was “a wonderful guy, with a twinkle in his eye. His door was always open and he was known for that big smile.’’
Spangler, a close friend of Dr. Williams, now owns the pointer his professor used.
“He was extremely energetic,’’ Spangler said, “and he surged up and down the classroom with that pointer.’’
Dr. Williams was the author of many articles and textbooks, some of which remain in use. Often honored for his work, he received the Distinguished Service Award from Harvard Business School in 1990.
After retiring from Harvard in 1986, he traveled the world on banking adventures, accompanied by his wife of 65 years, the former Betty Huffman. They lived in Weston for 43 years before moving to the retirement community.
Dr. Williams’s daughter Andrea of Cambridge called him a “happy, optimistic person, who really loved life.’’ He loved to play tennis and ski, she said, and he mowed the lawn and cut wood for the fireplace in Weston into his late 80s.
“At the dinner table, he always played the devil’s advocate, showing there’s always more than one perspective, and that helped make him a good teacher,’’ she said. “He loved his family. He was happy with what he had and he really enjoyed it.’’
Services have been held for Dr. Williams, who in addition to his wife and two children leaves three grandchildren.
Asked by Harvard Business School in 1990 how he hoped he most influenced his students, Dr. Williams said he “would like to think they learned to have confidence in their capacity to deal with unfamiliar issues. I hope they have a zest for problem solving.’’
Dr. Williams taught all over the world as part of what Harvard Business School then called its international senior management program, and he taught business executives in the senior bank officers seminar.
Teaching executives “gave me a chance to match ideas with people who were very much in the middle of things, to try to think about their problems, and to think ahead in the field with them,’’ Dr. Williams told Harvard’s business school. “I was learning as much as I was teaching.’’