Lonely Lunch Leads to Crowded Calendar of Service for Dawn Williams Print

Dawn Williams, '88.
Dawn Williams, '88. Photo by Mary Levin.
If Dawn Williams, ’88, had not gone to a poorly attended lunch for business school alumni 17 years ago, the following achievements might not have been possible:

• A strong financial foundation for the UW Alumni Association, which now has more than $13 million in its endowment.
• The merger of three business alumni associations into one overall group.
• The establishment of the CEO Lunch Series, which allows local and national business leaders to share their expertise with alumni.
• Better awareness of the UWAA within the University, among alumni and in the community at large.

In 1990, Williams was a recent business school grad who wanted to reconnect with the University. She heard about a downtown Seattle alumni lunch and thought that would be a good start. But the turnout was “embarrassing,” she recalls.

Afterwards, she told herself, “Don’t complain about something unless you are willing to do something about it.” The basic idea of a lunch series was sound; it just needed better execution.

Williams worked with other business alumni to revamp the offerings. “We decided we had to get CEOs, business leaders that you just couldn’t see every day,” she recalls. Through some arm-twisting, they were able to attract high-powered executives who, in turn, drew sellout attendance. In the CEO Lunch Series’ first year (1991), organizers were able to attract the CEOs of US West, Immunex, Safeco and Washington Energy. Over the years, the series has hosted leaders of Alaska Airlines, Washington Mutual, Nordstrom, COSTCO, Toys R Us and even the Seattle Mariners.

That endeavor began almost two decades of service to the alumni association, including a term as its president in 2003–04. In honor of her extraordinary efforts on behalf of alumni and the University, Williams is receiving the 2007 UWAA Distinguished Service Award June 7.

“Dawn has been a superb leader and one of our most dedicated volunteers,” says UWAA Executive Director Chuck Blumenfeld, ’66, ’69. “She is too humble to say it, but she has made the University and our community a better place.”

One of her first achievements was unifying three different alumni groups—one for B.A.s, one for M.B.A.s and one for the Executive M.B.A. program—into one business alumni association.

That led to her appointment to the UWAA Board of Trustees, where she served for five years before becoming an officer of the board. As treasurer, Williams and other volunteer leaders ensured that life dues and income from credit card agreements were banked in the UW’s endowment fund, rather than spent on day-to-day operations. Today the UWAA has $13 million in these reserves.

Since she is a financial advisor for Smith Barney, it seemed natural that Williams would serve as treasurer. But when she became UWAA president in September 2003, she was only the 14th woman to lead the alumni association. At that point, the UWAA was 114-years-old.

Working in what had traditionally been a male-dominated environment was nothing new for Williams. “At Smith Barney we have 52 financial advisors and only nine of us are women,” she says.

As president, Williams felt it was important to be a role model for other volunteers. In her first month, she attended 42 alumni meetings and events—everything from regents meetings to football games. As a spokesperson for the alumni association, she went to two commencement ceremonies in Husky Stadium, speaking in front of more than 35,000 people.

“I never had that hard of a time with public speaking,” she says, adding that leading the Husky Marching Band in “Bow Down to Washington” inside Husky Stadium during Homecoming was “scary, but a big thrill.”

In addition to her alumni association duties, Williams spent nine months on the search committee for a new athletics director after the retirement of Barbara Hedges. Because of the controversies surrounding former Football Coach Rick Neuheisel and former Softball Coach Teresa Wilson, it was a tough assignment, she says (see “Honor and Glory,” Sept. 2003).

Williams faced other tough tasks during her time as a UWAA officer. There was the departure of an executive director followed by the deaths of former UWAA President Geoff Vernon, ’65, and his wife, Judy, ’62, in a plane crash that killed 16 Husky alumni and fans one day after the September 11 terrorist attacks (see “Remember the Huskies,” Dec. 2001).

Williams was part of a core of volunteers who helped heal the organization and hired John Buller, ’69, ’71, as the UWAA’s new executive director in 2001. “John did a fabulous job. We are a totally different organization today,” she says. “We have an identity. We know who we are and we are better connected to the University and its alumni.” Buller left the UWAA last August to become CEO of Tully’s Coffee.

Being alumni association president, she admits, was like another full-time job, but one that she loved. “The best part for me was the camaraderie, just being with my fellow Huskies working to support the University,” she says.

“The saddest day for me was handing the gavel over to the incoming president and realizing that my term was over.”