There was reminiscing, a lot of laughter, a few tears, and a generous heaping of praise at the retirement send-off for the man who devoted 37 and a half years of his life to the betterment of agriculture in Arkansas and the United States.
“When I walked out last Friday, after all those years, it was a little scary; I was afraid the sun wouldn't come up the next day,” said Cecil Williams Jr. of his departure as executive vice president of the Agricultural Council of Arkansas.
But, he told members of the council and a host of friends at the group's 63rd annual meeting at Memphis, “The sun has continued to appear each day, and I'm finding I can make it through a day without going to the office.”
Williams — whose career has ranged from tromping through Arkansas crop fields to persuade farmers of the necessity for a cotton check-off program to arm-twisting key Capitol Hill legislators to see the council's position on ag legislation — came in for high praise by participants in his going-away event.
“What a legacy this man leaves,” said Bob McGinnis, long-time West Memphis, Ark., farmer, now retired, and a 22-year state legislator. “What he's done has touched the lives of so many farmers, not just in our state, but nationally. We all owe him our gratitude.”
He was “always out there on the front lines,” said Bill Weaver, Edmonton, Ark., farmer and Cotton Incorporated board member. “When we were trying to get the old $1 a bale program going to help U.S. cotton, he would march out in the fields, stop people on their tractors, and collect their money.
“He's been involved in so many of the programs that have benefited farmers. One thing you could always count on: that he'd stand up for the council and fight for its members' viewpoint.”
Jonesboro, Ark., farmer and insurance executive Hal Hyneman cited Williams' efforts on behalf of a workman's compensation insurance program for farmers/ginners and the boll weevil eradication program. “His work on these and other programs has put more dollars in the pockets of farmers and ginners.”
Referring to Williams' college alma mater, Louisiana State University, Hyneman said, “The initials LSU can also be used to describe Cecil's career: Loyalty to agriculture and his membership; Stability of leadership; and Uniqueness of character. I don't know of anyone who's been more dedicated to a job.”
Over the years, Williams has been “vilified and glorified,” said Allen Helms, Clarkedale, Ark., farmer and former chairman of the American Cotton Producers Association. “In some of our industry segments, he was considered Mother Theresa; in others, he was considered Saddam Hussein.
“But, he's been the ultimate organization executive. He always understood what his membership wanted and he worked tirelessly to achieve it. He has such a grip on issues, and his ability to analyze complex government programs and simplify them is amazing.”
Hal Lewis, Doddrige, Ark., consultant, scientist, plant breeder, former college prof, and man-for-all-seasons, has known Williams “forever,” and says “a lot of good things have come to Arkansas agriculture because of his hard work and persistence.”
“He was a prime mover in the formation of the American Cotton Producers Association, which gave producers a pretty strong voice in cotton policy — which they didn't have before. He was the first person to point out to me, in 1984, that people who'd never traded cotton were quoting prices on cotton. We stopped that; it's no longer done. And we did away with spot market quotation penalties.
“The reason the council has always been so effective is that we've had the best intelligence, we knew our adversaries, and we were able to hang ‘em out to dry — all because we had a good general in Cecil Williams. His accumulated knowledge and expertise have been a tremendous asset.”
Bill Baxter, Kelso, Ark., farmer/ginner, said, “Cecil spoiled us. He was so knowledgeable of issues that we didn't have to do a lot of detailed analysis. He's always tackled his work with such enthusiasm and dedication; we're all grateful for having had the pleasure of his company.”
Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry, who placed a tribute to Williams in the Congressional Record, laughed that “when I was elected to Congress in ‘93, nobody ever went there any greener than I. Cecil was a mentor and a counselor.
“What he's done for Arkansas and U.S. agriculture has helped make rural America a better place to live, work, and raise a family. I, like Cecil, believe that America's agriculture has been a great part of the success of this country.”
Williams, who sat and listened to the tributes in uncharacteristic silence, got in a few last words:
“I can't imagine that I could have fallen into a job that would have fit any better. I've never had a single day when I dreaded to go to work.
“Working with the council has been a lot like being a preacher: You know you're never gonna be rich — but you're always richly rewarded.”