Lea County lost a “gentle giant” Monday night with the passing of Zeak Lovell Williams Jr.
Williams died in his Hobbs home suddenly of a heart attack according to his son, Shawn. He was 73 years old.
The praise was for the man who was Hobbs’ first black city commissioner and first black mayor and a man once known as “The Fastest Man in New Mexico,” was unending Tuesday from those who knew him.
“Not only was he a good friend, but he made a lot of great contributions to the city and the county,” said Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb.
A native Lea Countian, Williams’ roots ran deep. His father, Zeak Sr., was a member of the Hobbs Tigers baseball team.
That athletic streak carried on to Williams, who was a track and field star at Hobbs High and later at Texas Western University, later known as University of Texas in El Paso, with his brother, Terry. Williams was once known as “The fastest man in New Mexico,” running the 100-yard dash in 9.3 seconds at the 1962 state track and field championships. That record forever stands as New Mexico high school track and field changed it increments of distance from yards to meters in 1980.
His prowess on the field can be seen in a story related by former Lea County Clerk Pat Chappelle, who heard the tale from Ray Hilburn, who ran with Williams.
“Ray said they were at a meet in St. Louis and Zeak was up to run,” Chappelle said. “They fired the gun and it was a false start so they brought all the runners back to the line. They did it again and again it was a false start. This time Zeak came back and sat down on the ground behind the starting line. They shot the gun off a third time and it was a good start and Zeak jumped up and won the race.”
Williams served as Hobbs City Commissioner from 1986-1994 and as Lea County Commissioner from 1996-2004. That’s where Chappelle, a former Lea County Clerk, first began working with Williams. “When he was on the (Lea) commission, he was a team builder,” she said. “He brought a certain cohesiveness to the group. He valued and appreciated all of us employees and he visited with all of us in the courthouse. He really formed a lot of friendships. It seemed to us that he always had a goal of what was best for the county.” After his wife, Yvonne, passed away in 2011, Williams stepped back into civil service to fulfill her term on the New Mexico Junior College Board, and continued to serve until his death. Shawn Williams said Tuesday that his father was first reluctant to serve on the NMJC board. Yvonne Williams worked 19 years for Hobbs Municipal Schools and was knowledgable in education.
“As as family we talked about how him serving on the NMJC board was a way to continue mamma’s legacy and he could continue his work in civil service,” Shawn Williams said. “He was leery about it at first, but he saw it as a way to serve the community and enjoyed it to the fullest. That was his pride. Even after he got re-elected to the seat, he continued to think that serving on the NMJC board was like continuing to carry mamma’s torch.”
During that time he met former NMJC president Steve McCleery and current president Kelvin Sharp.
“I first got to know Zeak when Yvonne was on the board and he would accompany her on school trips that we took,” McCleery said. “He had a wonderful sense of humor, but what really sets him apart in terms of his individuality was the example he set for his work ethic, for his boys, for his wife, for his family, and the fact that he had a deep-seeded faith in God.”
Sharp said Williams was a great help during his transition at NMJC last year.
“He was always supportive and just really wanted the students and the college to do well,” Sharp said. “His input was always really wise. For me, he gave me — I think some wise choices. He was a quiet individual, didn’t say much, but when he spoke up he had some wise things
Former City of Hobbs Manager Bob Gallagher worked with Williams during his time on the Hobbs City Commission, and he agreed, Williams was a man who did what was right. “I thought Zeak was a quiet, gentle giant,” Gallagher said. “Zeak lived by a simple philosophy; ‘You do the right things for the right reasons.’ I considered him a mentor as a city commissioner and mayor. We lost a quiet, gentle giant when we lost him (Monday). The way Zeak treated people should be patented and moulded and taught to everyone. If we had more people like him we wouldn’t have the problems we do today.”
Williams was Hobbs’ first black commissioner, elected in 1986 to the District 3 seat with 84.5 percent of the votes. In 1988, during a time when the city commission circulated mayoral duties among the five commissioners, Williams became the city’s first black mayor. He served two nine-month terms during his tenure. He ran for city office on a campaign mission to reduce the city’s dependency on oil and gas and diversify the economy. It is a goal the city continues to vigorously pursue to this day.
Williams graduated from Hobbs High School in 1962 and if he had a love of education it certainly showed. During his time on the NMJC board, Chappelle said he was one of the schools greatest cheerleaders.
He would recruit students off the streets, urging people he met to sign up for classes to improve their lives and give them tips and advice on how to go back to school or expand their education, Chappelle said.
Being a mentor was something Zeak Williams took seriously.
“My fondest memory of Zeak was how much he cared about kids and helping them to make sure they did things the right way,” said Hobbs resident Charles Hutchings, who coached with Zeak in Boys Club football.
Lea County Commission Chairman Ron Black worked with Williams on the NMJC board, and knew him not only as a high school athlete, but as a leader in any arena he entered.
“It just broke my heart to hear that,” Black said of Williams’ passing. “I sat next to Zeak at every meeting for a number of years and I knew him before that. I knew his family. Zeak was the greatest player when he was in high school and college. I was always kidding him about it and asking him what he thought he could run 100 (yards) in now. He’d always tell me it depends on how long his rest stop took. About a month or two ago he told me he was starting to get in shape and he was going to try the Senior Olympics.”
Hobbs Fire Chief and NMJC board member Manny Gomez has the honor of not only serving with Zeak, but also working with Shawn, who currently serves as the City of Hobbs Fire Marshal.
“He was a ‘silent leader,’ who was a good family man, father and grandfather,” Gomez said. “He said it was an honor to serve on the board with him and to know him on a personal level. He was one of those leaders that through his caring ways, created peace and provided that strength and confidence in the decisions he made throughout his public service career.”
Shawn Williams said Tuesday that while the shock that his father is gone, the family is at peace.
“Daddy’s strength in God has given all of us (children) strength,” Shawn Williams said. “We know he is a much better place now.”
One of four sons, Shawn said that public support he and his family have received has been, “incredible,” he said. “We know how much daddy loved this community and it’s amazing to see how much this community loved daddy.”
Williams is survived by his sister Mildred L. Brown, brother Terry L. Williams and sons Zeak L. Williams III, Eric K. Williams Jr., Shawn D. Williams, Cedric D. Williams, eight grandkids.
Visitation will be Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017 from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. at Chapel of Hope Funeral Home. Funeral services are 10 a.m., Friday, Aug. 4, 2017 at Taylor Memorial Baptist Church in Hobbs. Burial follows afterward at Prairie Haven Memorial Park Cemetery in Hobbs.