Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Roger Williams, Virginia Commissioner, Passes

Virginia’s workers’ compensation system has suffered a great loss. On October 11, 2016 Commissioner Roger Williams passed after a brave and arduous medical battle. For the second time this year, I find myself writing to memorialize one of our nation’s great workers’ compensation leaders. 

I remember meeting Roger Williams in July 2011 at a conference in Biloxi, Mississippi. I was there to speak on a panel. Karl Aumann of Maryland was running that event. He introduced me to Roger, who was welcoming and friendly. We spoke at length, and I felt fortunate for his attitude and openness about the challenges of worker's compensation, particularly on regulating and running it. Roger was a friendly, outgoing person. 

I next saw Roger at the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) All Committee Conference (ACC) in New Orleans, Louisiana in November 2012. We were both engaged in the program, but somehow Roger made time to traverse the busy room to spend a few moments. He seemed to know the news in your state as well as his own. He was impeccably well informed. He was a gentleman who always found time to talk and listen.

Roger had been elected SAWCA Vice President the prior July. In SAWCA, you serve as VP, President-elect and then President. I remember the Thursday night SAWCA “coffee and cordials” in New Orleans. I joined a conversation with Roger and Dwight Lovan. Roger steered the conversation to his vision for the future of SAWCA. Out of the blue, Roger explained to me that I would be VP after him (he did not ask, he told). He had a plan. A few months into his journey through SAWCA leadership, Roger had a plan. Roger was a visionary, a planner.

I will always remember Roger’s laughter and cheer that evening. He was in his element. I took Roger’s comments about my leading SAWCA with a grain of salt. I was flattered and frankly embarrassed by his conviction that I should follow him. I rather thought he must be kidding.

I spoke with Roger a few times in the months after New Orleans. Kidding he was not. In July of 2013, at the Don Cesar in St. Petersburg Beach, I was nominated and elected to serve as SAWCA vice president. I believe that it's fair to say I was talked into this by Dwight Lovan, Gary Davis, and Roger Williams. And Roger wore that signature smile the whole time. Roger was persistent and committed to his goals.

In November 2013, I attended the SAWCA ACC at Saint Simons Island Georgia. The Executive Committee dinner was at a fantastic restaurant. In all of my workers’ compensation travels, perhaps it was the best meal ever. After dinner, Roger arose to make some comments and announcements, and Roger is what makes the night stick in my mind, despite the fantastic food. 

That night we all learned (or perhaps others already knew) that Roger was an amateur magician, since childhood. Despite encouraging calls from the audience, no rabbit was produced from a hat. However, Roger regaled us for several minutes with multiple slight-of-hand tricks. In typical Roger Williams’ style, the smile never left his face, and the jokes and quips flowed freely. It was like a routine at the Comedy Store, Roger’s own brief HBO Special. Roger was again in his element, singling out attendees for this or that comment or joke. Roger was always genuine and openly engaged with people. 

I was proud when Roger was inducted as a Fellow of the College of Worker's Compensation Lawyers (CWCL) in 2014. He was honored and pleased. He told me that this experience was all the better because he was inducted along with Judges Alvey, Belcher, Kellar, Lott, Lovan and Szablewicz. Roger was proud of his profession, his associations, and his friends. 

Roger was a leader in designing and implementing the SAWCA Regulator College. The first year, he and Judge Belcher sat through both days, a full time job. The second year, he was scheduled to present, but did not make it due to food poisoning. We virtually sent out search parties when he did not show. His absence generated widespread concern (pronounced “panic”) because it was so out of character. Roger was known for being dependable and reliable. 

When I saw him last July, Roger was making jokes about cancer. He moderated the SAWCA Regulator Roundtable at the Annual Convention (to me it seems like he always did this). Roger really enjoyed the Roundtable; he liked preparing for it, moderating it, and his quips and comedy made it flow. He had become "Mr. Roundtable." As Mr. T might say, “I pity the fool” that has to try and fill Roger’s shoes next July. 

At the conclusion of that July roundtable, I presented Roger with a small acknowledgment of his effort, a framed picture of the Blue Angels. As I posed with him for a photo, he solemnly said he was going to take that picture home with him on the airliner. Then he dropped the punchline: that he would henceforth tell people "he flew with the Blue Angels." That was classic Roger. He was quick witted and sharp. Always on-cue and unscripted. 

I do little with Facebook. I understand Roger’s Facebook friends received updates in recent months. I fortunately received a periodic email pasted from Facebook. I was up-to-speed, but sporadically. I really only got one theme from those posts: Roger was incredibly cared for and loved. I reflect on the last year, after learning of his condition last November, and I think how incredibly short a time he had. But he was never alone. 

Selfishly, I lament Roger’s passing October 11, 2016. Things won’t be the same without Roger. I know he was suffering though, and that this is part of a larger plan. We will all process through our grief. Hopefully we will remember that Roger was always quick with a quip. He brightened a room. He was a good friend, a valued colleague, and an amazing intellect. I will miss you Roger, Godspeed.

P.S. I am tired of writing about friends lost though. 2016 has been one tough year. The rest of you better stick around.

Edited October 13, 2016 to add the following:

Celebration of Life
Commissioner Roger L. Williams

Friday, October 14, 2016, 2:00P.M.
Welborne United Methodist Church, 920 Maybeury Dr., Richmond, VA 23229; Reception to follow at Richmond Country Club, 12950 Patterson Ave., Henrico, VA 23238

In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions be made to Kid's Chance of Virginia, 12701 Marblestone Drive, Suite 250, Woodbridge, VA 22192 or Gayton Kirk Church, 11421 Gayton Rd., Henrico, VA 23238.

Please join the Commission in celebrating the life of our great leader, Roger L. Williams.

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