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When Ben Williams first visited Hilton Head Island soon after a two-lane swing bridge connected it to the rest of the world, it was desolate and poor enough for him to wonder whether he was in a forsaken place.
Fifty years later, the longtime pastor of Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church on Squire Pope Road sees the same island as a modern Jerusalem of sorts, a place that attracts people from all slices of life to see and share God's bounty through our unique, beautiful environs.
Ripples of charity, made possible through development, transformed Hilton Head in those intervening years. Some became waves, like Volunteers in Medicine, which spread free clinics throughout the country.
Williams, or "The Rev.," as he's known to many, is one of the leaders who made Hilton Head's transformation possible. He was honored Thursday as the 25th annual Man of the Year by the Men of the Church, a group of parishioners from both First Presbyterian and Providence Presbyterian.
<strong>SUGAR RAY LEONARD</strong>Williams, raised on a 52-acre farm in the middle of North Carolina, was first intimidated by visions of the pulpit he said he began seeing at 8 years old. He viewed the role of the preacher as protecting people from eternal damnation.
"I thought that responsibility was a little too great for a little country boy like me," he said.
He pursued the ministry, nonetheless, graduating near the top of his class from Bethel Bible College in New York City. His calling brought him to Hilton Head with his late wife, native islander Elizabeth Patterson, and their young son in 1973.
He eventually went on to provide spiritual guidance to boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard, who twice trained for fights on Hilton Head.
It was a turbulent period in Leonard's life and he already had retired a couple of times.
Williams baptized the boxer in the salty waters of Skull Creek. In return, Leonard bought robes for the Mount Calvary choir and a Lincoln Continental for "The Rev." Some of Williams' other baptisms were filmed by National Geographic.
"It was such an incredible experience to train at Hilton Head for the (Marvin) Hagler fight," Leonard wrote in a letter for the Man of the Year breakfast. "What a magical place with perfect weather and great people. I had the special privilege of being baptized by Rev. Ben Williams many, many, many years ago, and I want to personally congratulate Rev. Ben on all his accomplishments over the years."
Those accomplishments include more than 25 years as a pastor, and volunteer work at Hilton Head Island Middle School, where he is a mentor to at-risk boys.
Williams organized the island's first celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, even bringing the fallen civil rights leader's father from Atlanta on one occasion.
Mayor Tom Peeples described Williams as "a true unifier of islanders from every background," not unlike the two-lane bridge that brought Hilton Head to the world, if not the other way around.
"He's an awesome man -- a great character," Peeples said.
With a sharp wit, booming voice and genuine curiosity, Williams exudes love and compassion, said Jim Collett, who introduced "The Rev." on Thursday. "When I sat down with Rev. Williams, we spent half the time laughing and the other half the time shaking hands, but in between the laughing and handshaking, I was struck by Ben's compassion for every race, every creed, native islanders and people who only recently arrived."
Williams accepted the award Thursday and then launched into a singing testimonial, the story of his faith, ending with the hymn "He Touched Me."
"I'm happy today that God sent Ben Williams to a little island that's the most special place on earth," he said. "From the depths of my heart, thank you for this special moment."