It has been 98 years since one of Pekin’s favorite sons drew his first breath in the town that he loves.
Saturday was Roy Williams’ birthday and he took a moment to share some memories and give some advice to those who come behind him. He joined fellow seniors, friends all, at the Miller Center where for his birthday he was awarded two apple pies and a round of “Happy Birthday,” which he sang with the crowd. Williams, after all, is a musician who played in the big band era out in many of the dance halls in Pekin and the surrounding area.
Small town life in Pekin was everything a boy could want, said Williams, and it still is.
Williams worked as a young boy to help his family during the years prior to and during the Great Depression. Every cent went into the bank. He was asked Friday what he could remember of his childhood at this point in his life. He said his memories start at 12 years old just as his family was going into the Depression.
“It was bad,” said Williams. “My Uncle George in 1929, he lost a 400-acre farm overnight.
“My folks, everybody, was just destitute overnight — we lost. So I got a job. We lived at 1201 S. Capitol St., the man across the street was Mr. Frank Meyers, the street car conductor. I got a job doing the seats for 10 cents a day. By doing the seats, I mean the backs of the seat were movable, so if we were going west I would move the seats back so they were pointing west. After about a month, I got a nickel raise — 15 cents a day. Why? I had to stand up with the conductor. On the floor, we had a big bell. At each corner, the bell was the signal that the street car was coming. I got to ring the bell.”
Later, he took a job while in junior high school for the Pekin swimming pools — one deep and one a wading pool. He was paid 20 cents a day for washing towels in the wringer washer and taking them out to the parking lot to hang them to dry. And he got another raise. The pool required that all swimmers bathe before getting into the pool. He was promoted to shower boy — he pulled the cord to make the water come out for the bathers.
All of his money went to support the famil, who he enjoyed helping. One such memory still makes him cry.
“Talking about money, my Uncle Bill was very successful, he could afford it, and he gave me a dollar, and I banked that every Tuesday,” said Williams. “When refrigerators came out, my dad bought one for my mother, and something happened and they came in the second month and took it back.
“My folks hit a rut and believe it or not, over all of those years, I had saved $700. My folks needed the money, and they took me down to the blue building downtown, which was the American National Bank, and I stood on two boxes to get up to sign my name and gave my folks that money. I never missed the $700.”
Williams wanted to be a musician and when the grade school marching band was started he wanted to play the trombone. They said his lips were “too thick” for the mouthpiece. They suggested he go try a reed instrument.
“I took to the sax — it was just automatic,” said Williams. “So I got into the grade school band and moved up to the high school band.
“I thought I was pretty good on the saxophone.”
Several friends got together with Williams, and they formed the “Serenaders.”
“So there we were ready to capture the musical world,” said Williams. “Our theme song was, ‘Dream a Little Dream for Me.’
“We got a job at the High Hat in the 100 block of Court Street.”
An Oldsmobile dealer heard about the band and moved his cars out of the show room and had the band perform there. Ultimately the Serenaders played in ballrooms all around the area, including the ballroom on the second floor of the former Pekin Daily Times building on South Fourth Street that was demolished in October 2013. They also played on the third floor of the Times building where the Masonic Hall was located, and they played dinner sessions at the Pere Marquette in Peoria.
Williams said that in his 98 years he has seen the “good and the bad” in Pekin. He said Pekin’s downtown was vibrant. Some changes have been painful for Williams.
“Everything was down there — they had lunch, they had Reuling’s, shoes, fountains — everything you wanted was in Pekin,” said Williams. “You didn’t have to worry about going to Peoria.
“Look at it now. If there is a comeback, it’s very slow.”
In 1949, said Williams, a bus line started running from Pekin to Peoria and Bartonville opening up easier access to the outside.
Williams married his wife, Jackie, in 1942. They had one son, Timm Williams, and raised him here in Pekin. He owned Timothies Interiors for many years.
Williams’ parents asked him to never become involved in politics, a request that he honored, but he has performed community service throughout his life. He was the founder of Spruce Up Pekin, for which he formed a committee and ran it for more than 20 years. In 2004, he lead a campaign to raise the money for a downtown clock on Capitol Street. He also called bingo at the Miller Center for several years, to name a few of his activities.
The special thing about Pekin, said Williams, is the people.
“I love people, and I just automatically didn’t think of going anywhere else,” said Williams. “I was very active in school, and of course, I met Jackie.
“We would have been married 74 years. She died Dec. 12, 2015. I miss here dearly. I just stayed in Pekin. I had no desire to move. It’s been a pretty calm town. It has been all my life.”
There is a message in Williams’ life that he hopes Pekin Community High School students will take to heart.
“Know where you’re going, commit yourself to a good position and don’t forget Pekin, because Pekin needs doctors, lawyers, you know,” said Williams. “Stay in Pekin.
“You have everything you need right here — friendships. Build memories.”
Follow Sharon Woods Harris at Twitter.com/sharrispekin