By VICKI McCORMICK LEWIS, M.Ed.
Language Arts, Portal High School
If you want to know about the crucial role that Harvey Lee Williams Sr. has played in the Portal community, you only need to talk to one or two people … and you don’t need to look far.
Married nearly 44 years, he and wife Ruby are the proud parents of three successful children: Celathia (Columbus), Scrum Master II at Aflac Insurance; Alicia (Dallas), Casualty Claims Supervisor at Assurance America Insurance Company; and Harvey (Huey) Williams Jr., Portal High School business education teacher and basketball coach. Williams also has four granddaughters: Akela, Alea, Riley and Avery.
Williams made Portal history in 1973 when, under the leadership of Coach Bill Brown, he became the first Black sophomore in the starting lineup for the varsity basketball team. During high school, he was voted Best Defensive Player, Most Valuable Player and Most Athletic Male.
People may remember Williams as the man who, with the permission of then school principal Jimmy Parrish, supervised “night gym” in the old Portal gymnasium for 25 years.
Williams said, “Students used the facility on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday nights. It was a way to keep the kids out of trouble and a place for them to practice their skills on the court.”
Today’s students reap the rewards of Williams’ wisdom and experience as he enthusiastically dispenses encouragement or reprimands from the coach’s bench. Williams’ commitment has helped guide the players and taken the Panthers to the Final Four tournaments twice during his service.
Jeff Brannen, Portal head boys varsity basketball coach said, “Harvey and I are a lot alike. We don’t always agree, but we respect each other. He’s been on this bench with me for nearly 20 years. We balance each other out. The kids call him ‘Unc.’”
Brannen admits that he’ll often turn an athlete over to Williams for a fatherly tongue-lashing when needed.
“I talk to them like they are one of my own,” Williams said. “Nine times out of ten, I went to school with their grandma or grandaddy. That’s the beauty of a small community like we have here in Portal. I could live anywhere in the world, but this is where I chose to raise my family.”
Portal sophomores Joseph Thomas and Rylan Currin appreciate Williams’ presence.
“He’s consistent,” Thomas said. “He’ll help a student if they need money, something to eat, or a little advice.”
Currin added, “He tells us exactly what’s on his mind; he does not hold back. You are getting the truth — no matter how much it may hurt.”
Williams, a 1975 graduate of Portal High School and son of a sharecropper, grew up working the land, but happily traded his overalls and brogans for jerseys, cleats and a ball.
“A group of us enrolled at Portal during the height of desegregation,” he said. “We had previously attended Willow Hill School and William James High School. It was a smooth transition; we knew the white kids and they knew us. We had just never sat in a classroom together. Having a coach like (the late) Bill Brown made a huge difference.
“He put three black players in the starting lineup; he looked past our race and focused on what we could do for the team. He always treated us the same way he treated every other player.”
Retired athletic director and head coach Donald Williams, no relation, described the positive influence that Williams brought to the team.
“He was the spirit of the team; there was no close second. Harvey was the light,” he said.
In addition to the charismatic disposition, Williams recalled Williams’ talent.
“Harvey could make that shot anytime from the left hand corner of the court. Harvey was our wide receiver when I started the football team in 1974. There were three Williamses on the team: Abraham, Henry and Harvey. I’d proudly claim them as family, but Harvey — he has kept in touch with me after all these years. He’s just a really good person,” he said.
Unable to take advantage of the basketball scholarship to attend Brewton Parker College, Williams planned for the military. However, when his uncle, Johnny Williams, offered him a job in his Statesboro body shop, Williams jumped at the opportunity.
Oldest brother James Williams confirms the origin of his brother's work ethic.
“Mom had passed away, but our daddy, James Williams Sr., was a shade tree mechanic when he wasn’t farming. There were six of us, and we learned the meaning of hard work from him. Harvey’s interest in automobiles was his ticket out of poverty,” he said.
Harvey's Paint and Body Shop
Not only has Williams’ success as the owner of Harvey’s Paint and Body Shop provided him and his family a comfortable living, he’s also known for his generosity to the Portal community.
Justin Raymond, one of the shop’s two full-time employees says, “I’ve worked for Harvey since 2003. He’s fair and cares about his employees.”
The body shop, located on McPhatter Lane in Portal, opened in 1985 and has been a lifeline to many young men who were in need of employment, support or mentorship.
“Harvey did not limit himself to helping youth in his immediate community,” said Willis Holliday, entrepreneur and vice president of Georgia Southern University’s Alumni Association of the Roundball Club. “He has also had a positive impact on hundreds of athletes who were enrolled at Georgia Southern during the 80s and 90s.
“He and his wife Ruby invited us into their home on many occasions. Harvey fed, encouraged, advised, provided employment and loaned us money for dates. This is a model man who was a father figure to many. Today I’m a successful entrepreneur because he inspired me. Put it this way, you either love him or you don’t know him. He’s given so much to Portal that I am seriously in favor of a Harvey Williams Day.”
While there are no immediate plans for a day to salute Williams’ contributions to the community, he received the American Legion award in 2011 and was elected to the BLJ (Bishop Larry Jones) Hall of Fame in 2014. He again joined ranks with superstars in 2019 when he was inducted into the Portal High School Hall of Fame. As fate would have it, the commemorative plaque which hangs in the school’s lobby also displays the name of honorary recipient Coach Bill Brown, one of the first white men Williams knew who “did not see color.”
Williams recalls, “Willow Hill, William James and Portal High School provided me with great role models. I learned to give back. One of my teachers once told us to write down what we wanted out of life. I wrote three things: to be a paint and body man, to coach at Portal High School and to have a wife and three kids. Life has been good to me, so I am being good to others.”