Below is the text of the eulogy I delivered at my father, Frederick John Williams’s funeral on 5 May 2023. We all miss him dearly.
I’m very aware of how difficult my job here this morning will be; to try to summarise, and explain, a life of eighty years, and I don’t have the luxury of a lecture course over which to do it.
A eulogy (from Classical Greek; literally “good words”, or praise) must really just serve as a quick revision lecture, to help you all recall your favourite memories of Fred, and I hope that if you’re able to join us later you will be able to relate some of them to us as we catch-up and reminisce. Of course, when I say “good words”, there’s the risk that you get the impression at this stage that this will all be somehow entirely respectful and reverent. I can assure you my father would have been mortified if he had raised an entirely reverent son!
Dad was born in 1943 in Wolverhampton, the son of Gladys, a homemaker, and Frederick, a carpenter who had served in the Navy during the War. However, at school it became clear that Dad was unlikely to follow in the business of carpentry, and leant more for more academic pursuits. While sorting through some of Dad’s papers I came across his school report book, and it shows that he was routinely either top of, or very close to top of his class in Latin, Greek, French, and German. Dad had started in Wolverhampton Municipal Grammar, but won a scholarship for the sixth-form to Wolverhampton Grammar School. From here he won a state scholarship to Pembroke College Oxford where he studied Literae humaniores, or classics, as it’s better known if, like me, your Latin isn’t quite sharp enough at this time of the day.
If it wasn’t clear from this point that Latin and Greek are to play a central part in the story of Fred’s life, that will undoubtedly become more apparent. However, a slightly surprising bit of information about dad is that his first job after graduating had nothing to do with either Latin or Greek, but in fact physics. For a year or so he worked as an administrative assistant at the Rutherford High Energy Laboratory in Berkshire. As you can imagine he was often keen to relate stories about the physicists to me (a physicist by trade), and somehow they tended not to be entirely reverent or entirely flattering.
Dad would however orbit back into academia quite quickly in a way which I would regard as rather unimaginable today, taking his first lecturing job at the University of Southampton in 1966, while working on his PhD part-time at Birkbeck College in the University of London. In his 19 years at Southampton Dad rose from assistant lecturer to senior lecturer. But eventually he would uproot his life to move to Northern Ireland, to take up the chair of Greek at Queen’s in Belfast.
As I was collecting my thoughts for today, I was sitting in a rocking chair in the library of my parents house. Yes, Dad had a library. There are bookcases lining three of the four walls from floor to ceiling. There are books on a shelf above the doorway. The only reason there aren’t bookshelves on the fourth wall is that most of it is window, and the rest is mostly taken up by a radiator. There are two more bookcases which are standing in the middle of the room, and themselves reach all the way to the ceiling. They are all full. I’ve been working in that room for the past few months, and in order to clear way to put a laptop on the desk I had to first move three piles of unshelved books, which are currently balanced slightly precariously atop a printer. There are thousands of books there. When Dad retired I helped him to transpose them from his office to the house. There were an astonishing number then, and he hasn’t stopped acquiring new ones since. It was rare to see dad without a book; I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d carried one to read while queueing at the checkouts in the supermarket.
Looking around his library there are hundreds of books on religion (mostly, but not exclusively, Christianity), dozens of cookbooks, and at least a hundred dictionaries. There are dictionaries for Portuguese, German, and Japanese. There are copies of The Bible in Dutch, Scots, and Coptic. That’s before you get on to the walls of books of Greek and Latin literature and commentary. Perhaps half the books in the room are in English.
Dad was, of course, an academic. He was many other things too, but I think it’s safe to say that his defining characteristic was being an academic. As I’ve grown older I’ve often found it moderately amusing that, despite having myself drifted into academia, I’ve never met anyone who was quite as much an academic as my father. It was often difficult to have a conversation with Dad which didn’t involve at least one digression on the etymology of some word which had come up in conversation. Dad hoarded knowledge and information, but he was never one to hold-on to it, and he would happily play the role of educator in any social situation. Yet despite this he managed something many educators would be envious of: the ability to communicate passionately, and to educate without it ever feeling like he was talking down to you.
I’ve said that Dad was Professor of Greek, and that he was an academic, but in his own words he was either a papyrologist, or more likely, a philologist (Classical Greek; literally, someone who loves words). I always found it a bit difficult to pin-down exactly what the primary focus of his work and research actually was; a state I expect is familiar to many academics, it certainly is to me. One of the foci was on the works of a Third Century BCE Greek poet called Cercidas. Cercidas’s works had been found in a hoard of documents discovered at Oxyrhynchus, in fragmented form, and Dad spent much of his career piecing these back together, and analysing the various parts which had survived. Of course, anyone who had ever visited Dad’s office would be aware that Dad very much embraced this approach to papers and filing paperwork in the rest of his life too.
I’ve concentrated heavily up to this point on Dad’s career. It’s true that that was an important aspect of his life, but it would be wrong to suggest that it was an all-consuming one. Fred and Elaine met in Belfast in 1988; with a shared passion for languages, and with an Oxford college in common, it was clearly meant to be a match. They married at the end of 1988, and remained devoted to one another. Fred was also a caring and kind father, supporting all of his children as they grew to become a whole variety of different things, ranging from wordy academic physicists, through to more applied and practical roles: physicians, even accountants.
Mum often jokes that she’s not sure whether, in the event of a fire in the house, Dad would have run back in to save the family, or to save the library. I’ve often thought that she missed a third option here: that he’d have run back in to save the dogs. Animals were always an important part of Dad’s life, and his love for animals was reflected not only in his care for the family pets, but also in the many animal charities he supported. While in my lifetime there have always been animals around the house, there have not always been dogs, which some of you might be surprised to learn. One of my earliest memories relates to a piece of… activism… I was involved in within the household. You see, I had determined that what our family needed was a dog, and I set about persuading my parents of this. Dad set me up in life for many situations, but this is perhaps one where he may not have given me the best introduction to something. Any negotiation I’ve been part of since has felt a little different from that one. It turns out that things are very different when the person you’re arguing with secretly agrees with you all along. One of the possessions Dad always had close to him in hospital in the last few months was a photo of one of his Jack Russell terriers, and indeed the two terriers became regular visitors to him on the ward, and became celebrities among the nursing staff.
Whether it was as a husband, a father, a friend, or even just an acquaintance, Fred touched many people’s lives. I think there are few people who could have talked to Dad for more than a few minutes without forming quite a distinctive memory of him. After all, how frequently do you come across someone who can relate some throwaway expression used in conversation to its classical origins, while in the next sentence telling you about his cairn terrier and then talking about your own dog. Of course, if your dog was there Dad might just as easily have conducted most of this conversation at the dog, possibly in Italian (to the considerable confusion of visitors to the house, and, to be honest, at times, other people who lived in the house, Dad has trained all our dogs in Italian).
Today is of course a sad day, as we remember all that we have lost with Fred’s passing. But it is also a time for us to remember the joy he brought us, and the many gifts he left us.Share Share Share