This story is too big.
I've covered the Republican National Convention, the Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis fight and the lottery. I've written about Social Security, health care policy, race relations, the investment markets, energy economics, the environment and a variety of other topicsbut nothing like this.
Fitting the abundance that was the life of Avon Nyanza Williams III into 1,400 or so words is impossible. But with the tragedy of his sudden death July 9, now well known to Nashvillians, it's time to "cover" this story, to say goodbye.
Writing about the passing of Avon, my school chum, my confidante, my intellectual mentor, my colleague on the boards of the Cockroft Forum for Free Enterprise and the League for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, my bowling partner, and my friend for 30 years is a job I thought I would never have. I wish I were writing his biography 30 years from now rather than this panegyric today. Such is the frailty of life.
Avon's vocational trajectory spanned a wide path: lawyer, foreign diplomat, investment banker, public speaker, writer, media analyst and, finally, acting general counsel of the Army at the Pentagon in Washington. As chief legal officer for the U.S. Army, it was a job with immense responsibility, including the oversight of all legal policy and the direction of some 2,400 military and civilian lawyers. It was a presidential appointment, and the position's equivalent was that of a three-star general officer.
But there was so much more to Avon than his job. Avon was the smartest person I ever met. He was embraced by the highest strata of Nashville and Washington society but was never beholden to it, or jaded by it. I remember telling Avon that I was impressed by an interview in which Nashville Symphony conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn (a man whom Avon knew I greatly admired), claimed that the most important lesson learned from his mentor Leonard Bernstein was "how to light a cigarette in a stiff wind." Avon winced gamely and replied, "Oh, how café society." I never thought of that "lesson" the same way again.
Avon was as inscrutable in contemporary African American circles as he was by tradition-bound whites. As derided and misunderstood as his father, civil rights lawyer Sen. Avon Williams Jr., was by old whites, Avon III was as vilified at times by young blacks.
I'll never forget a 1992 Banner article by Chuck Watts, former African American law professor at Vanderbilt, that accused Avon of being a "house nigger" for the Republican Party. Chuck was a friend of ours, an occasional golfing buddy. But his article was churlish garbage and revealed a dark time in our history when African Americans in the GOP were verbally lynched for being uppity enough to think for themselves. Even though I wanted to brain Chuck with my Big Bertha, Avon was untouched by the article. I never heard Avon speak an ill word about him.
The apparent contradiction of Avon son-of-a-civil-rights-leader-Republican-banker-lawyer-who-is-this-black-man-anyway? was vexing to the media and for those who didn't know him. But for those who did, we just saw the contradictions as part of what made him among the most damned interesting people this city has ever produced. Avon introduced me to The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, rappers PM Dawn and Me Phi Me, Pink Floyd's The Wall, the Harlem Renaissance, Shakespeare (whom I somehow missed at University School, Peabody, Vanderbilt and Belmont), Mary's Barbecue in North Nashville, pork rinds (I could have done without that), poker (which I always beat him at) and advanced political theory. He sometimes credited me for bringing him over to the Republican Party. But this was just an example of his generous spirit. In fact, it was Avon who brought the Republican Party alive for me and, for so many of his friends, he made Republicanism safe for intellectuals.
Avon Williams brought a convert's zeal to his politics. I remember going on a "Boss Lift" trip with Avon in 1990 to review the officer candidate and ranger schools in Fort Benning, Ga. We were part of an organization, Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve, which was organized by Sen. Ray Albright. On that trip, Avon explained to me in beautiful simplicity the proper function of government. It was so simple that I remember it today and recite it like a mantra. He told me that the federal government has three roles: 1) the coinage of money, 2) the adjudication of our differences through a properly maintained legal system and 3) the provision for our common defense. That's it. That's all. If it doesn't fit one of those three criteria, then the government needs to get out of that business.
Avon Williams was a complex but uncomplicated man. Complicated people are conflicted, directionless and tedious. Complex people are innovative and substantial. Complexity in the computer world means user friendly. The more complex an operating system, ironically, the more intuitive and useful it is and the better that it communicates with its user. That's why, early on, the point-and-click Mac operating system was superior to early Microsoft systems, which were rule-and-command driven. Avon's complexity was very user friendly and amazingly taut.
I've never met anyone quicker on his feet. His craft was legendary. We attended the 1992 Republican Convention together in Houston and shared a room. One morning, I was jarred awake at no later than 5 a.m. by the sound of Avon's voice. He was talking on the phone. It was dark outside, he was still in bed and all of the lights were off. I tried to go back to sleep, and he was speaking in an uncharacteristically low tone of voice so as not to disturb me. He was being interviewed by a radio station in Nashville about the previous night's session. Literally with his eyes closed, he conveyed the previous evening's speeches, resolutions and controversies with detailed accounts of places, people, vote counts, etc. He needed no notes or preparation. It was astoundingand hilarious. In reference to John McCain, who had spoken the night, before Avon said, "He's an automaton. If McCain was the leader of the civil rights movement rather than Reverend King, I'd still be drinking out of colored water fountains." I hope that made it on the air.
Avon's humor sometimes got him into trouble. Once, he was the guest of a local radio show during a presidential election season in the '90s. Somehow, the conversation took an apocalyptic turn and Avon started to describe in baroque terms what the devil would look like should he ever surface on earth. His description went like this: "Far from the Miltonian account of evil wrought with infernal serpents, hideous ruin...and penal fire, the devil will reveal himself to us as a very inviting and appealing character. Attraction, after all, is the ultimate tool of evil. The devil will be self-effacing, charitable, genuine, elegant, sophisticated but approachable by the humblest of men, and of course be a brilliant raconteur. Surely you know now who I'm describing. Bill Clinton." Avon was the general counsel for the Tennessee Department of Safety at the time. After the show, he got a phone call from Gov. Sundquist's office. That's the last time I ever heard him on the radio.
His humor never got him in trouble with any of his friends, though. I remember pulling into my driveway one evening and Avon was at my house waiting for me. I had just been grocery shopping. He asked me what I had in my shopping bag. I told him: wheat bread, mayonnaise, marshmallows, milk and vanilla ice cream. Avon just nodded with one of his Paul Newman smirks, patted my Audi, scanned my perfect Green Hills lawn, took in a long deep breath of suburban summer air and said, "You know, Andy, right now you are the whitest white man in America."
Avon had the strong moral political fiber of his father, the poetic sensibility of his mother, who was the daughter of lyric poet Arna Bontemps, and the enigmatic beauty of his beloved sister Wendy. He leaves behind seven adorable children and a wonderful loving wife, Jan, who described to me through tears the other day how she had met her "teddy bear" husband. And he leaves behind many devoted friends.
What a guy Avon was. I want the world to know that Avon tied a necktie tighter and cleaner than anyone I knew. That he was as comfortable doing business in Manila, Paris or D.C., as he was in Nashville. That he taught me how to pronounce the names of all the wines that he had introduced to me and that he could hum Bach's Fugue in G-minor flawlessly note for note.
I want the world to know that it was Avon's refined noetic sensibility that won us all over and endlessly enchanted us. But it was his heart, noble and generous, abiding and restful, the loss of which will make us forever sad, that we'll miss most.