Ocala is a great place to call home, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that some of the best things this area has to offer are the result of the hard work and the smart decisions of people who came before us.
There’s a man, still with us through 90 years of Ocala’s history, whose work continues to benefit us today. His name is Jim Williams, and he was born and raised here, and so too were his father and his grandfather. It’s hard to imagine an Ocalan who has seen more change or done more to move us forward than Jim. As a young businessman, with a half interest in Dixie Lime & Stone and also an involvement in cattle and citrus, a couple of things happened in our town that turned his thoughts in another direction. One was a struggle that was happening nationwide, but especially in the South. Racial integration was a contentious issue here, and Jim saw a need to get involved, helping to end segregation in his church and in the wider community as well. The other thing that happened was a dispute between teachers and the Marion County School Board, which led to a teacher strike. Jim was asked to mediate, and his ability to find common ground between the warring factions helped them avoid a work stoppage.
He began to see that his problem-solving and people skills might be useful in politics, so he ran for the state senate in 1968. Shortly after taking office, he took a stand that went 180 degrees against local opinion. He came out strongly against the Cross-Florida Barge Canal. Most of our local businessmen and politicians were for it, and it was moving forward at a rapid pace. If you doubt it, look at the giant bridge east of Silver Springs on State Road 40. It was built for the Barge Canal. A canal cutting straight through our state from east to west would have had a catastrophic impact on our aquifer and been ruinous to our supply of fresh water. Yet, it was about to happen until Jim (in what many considered to be an act of political suicide) became a powerful voice in an opposition movement that ultimately led to a federal order, which halted the project. If he did nothing else, that courageous act alone would be a shining legacy, but he did much more.
Jim was the driving force behind the creation of Florida’s Water Management Districts. It was a new concept. The districts were set up geographically along the paths that our fresh water naturally flows, and management was organized in ways that minimize chances for petty political and regional disputes.
Always good with numbers, he had a big impact on our state’s fiscal policies during his six years in the senate and also during his four years as lieutenant governor under Reuben Askew, where he, unique among lieutenant governors, headed the Department of Administration. Thus, for a decade, from both the legislative and the executive branches of government, he was the main architect of Florida’s budgets. It was a time when quite a few city and state budgets in this country were having huge problems (some even went bankrupt, including New York City). Without big tax increases and also without big cuts in services, Florida’s budgets during this time were always balanced, with no deficits. His budgets were studied and copied by numerous other states in America and by quite a few European countries as well.
For his efforts in state government, he was honored as Most Outstanding Environmental Legislator and as Florida’s Legislator of the Year.
Then, President Jimmy Carter appointed him deputy secretary of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and for the next four years, he oversaw the vast operations of that 80,000-person organization. After another two years spent facilitating a merger between two of America’s largest mining associations, he moved back home from Washington.
Jim always thought of politics as public service, and although he retired from politics, he did not stop serving people. One way he served was by chairing the Munroe Regional Medical Center Board of Directors through a rather tumultuous time. As always, he had a calming influence, making things less confrontational and helping to find compromise. He was also a key fundraiser for the Salvation Army and for the group headed by Randy Briggs, along with Ed Dean, that built our YMCA.
With a 71-year loving marriage to his late wife, Lou, and a wonderful family life, Jim has done it all, and he’s seen our great town grow, change and prosper through the years. If you want a living embodiment of the term “pillar of the community,” look no further than Jim Williams.