“Death, taxes, and the Kentucky Wildcats”: My Interview with Winn Williams

The Honorable Winn Fleming Williams (B.A. ’71) was inducted into the UK College of Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame class of 2020. He represents A&S for the UK Alumni Board, where he serves on the Leadership Advisory Council as well as the Diversity/LGBTQ committee. He is a past president of the UK Alumni Club, president of the Kentucky Society, both in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Arts & Sciences Dean's Development Council.
 
By Will Fisher
 
I was first introduced to Winn F. Williams through UK’s College of Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame induction. During our brief time on the phone discussing his life and sharing experiences, I realized how the University of Kentucky played a major role in his life and how much he loves UK.
 
Winn grew up in a family of UK graduates; in fact, he is a fourth-generation Wildcat. One might think that with this UK legacy, Winn may have been pressured to attend UK. But as he tells it, while growing up in Virginia, family vacations were spent in Lexington, watching the Cats play, visiting family and enjoying the Bluegrass. When it was time for him to make his college choice, he said it was easy to choose the University of Kentucky. 
 
When describing his time at UK, Winn talked about his fondness for UK basketball, but he also about the skills he developed in school. Originally, he wanted to pursue a pre-med major, but the social sciences, particularly sociology and political science, proved to be stronger pulls. He talked about how his education benefited him in his career, emphasizing that it wasn’t so much the content of his courses but rather the hard and soft skills he honed. For him, the plethora of papers, discussions and critical analyses required in course work molded how he organized his thoughts, improved his communication skills and enriched his understanding of human behavior. When Winn graduated in 1971 with a double major in sociology and political science, he said, he left UK with a strong set of critical thinking and communication skills that eventually helped frame how he solved problems and analyzed social interactions — skills that ultimately helped further his career in federal law enforcement. But that’s getting ahead of the story a bit.
 
After graduating from UK, Winn worked as a banker but soon discovered it wasn’t the field for him. He became a teacher, but budget cuts made him reorient his career goals once again. It occurred to him that a career with the country’s largest employer, the federal government, might be fruitful, and thus began his long — and impactful — career in federal law enforcement. For example, Winn was instrumental in establishing the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration. For those of us who wonder why airports operate the way they do, we have Winn Williams to thank for that. But his implementation of safety protocols and training requirements, as well as many other accomplishments during his tenure in federal law enforcement, resulted in an array of awards and accolades by the time he retired. Among Williams' many commendations are the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency Award for Excellence, the U.S. Attorney’s Award for outstanding achievement, two Department of Homeland Security gold medals and the Department of Homeland Security’s highest honor, the Secretary's Excellence Award.
 
Since retiring, Winn has been an active and involved participant in the UK community, motivated, not surprisingly, by his fondness for the university. He mentored the young man who established the UK Alumni Club in Greenville, SC during his time in Washington, D.C. on how to establish an alumni club. He is an original member of the College of Arts & Sciences Advisory Board. He also serves on the Dean’s Development Council and served as the A&S college representative to the Alumni Council. Being involved in these ways is part of how he gives back to a university that he says provided him with so much. As Winn explained, “UK has done for you more than you will realize, until many years later.”
 
Throughout our entire conversation, we kept coming back to how Winn’s UK experience was so formative for him. His classes, interactions in and outside the classroom, papers, and discussions all provided skills he has used throughout his adult life and contributed to who he is today. The things he learned in Lexington have stayed with him, and he has applied them in his professional and personal lives many times over. At the end of our conversation, he reminded me that there are only three real constants in life, “death, taxes, and the Kentucky Wildcats.” In that, I felt how impactful and meaningful his time at UK was and continues to be. Being a graduate student, I do not have the opportunity to meet many alumni, but after my conversation with Winn Williams, I feel fortunate for having had this opportunity and I look forward to a future conversation with him, hopefully face-to-face while sipping some good Kentucky bourbon.
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