NORTH SHORE SECTION
Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011
SECURITY GUARD AT WAGNER COLLEGE RECEIVES HIS DEGREE ALONGSIDE HIS DAUGHTER
By ASHRAF HASHAM
In the dead of night, behind the front desk of Parker Towers Residence Hall on the campus of Wagner College, sits a weathered-yet-robust-looking man with silvery white hair and an austere air.
Sometimes, he is surrounded by little tools and pieces of raw leather, twine, thread, wood, or a supply of different-sized beads. Wearing reading glasses, he concentrates on his most recent handmade creations — among them moccasins, bracelets, necklaces, even faux Olivanders wands from the wizarding world of Harry Potter.
At other times, Richie Williams of Eltingville, senior desk attendant for the hall, used the computer, working on a paper for class the next morning.
When he intuits someone walking down the Towers Bridge, and then hears the familiar beep of an ID card being swiped, he glances at the face of the incoming. If he finds it friendly and familiar, he reaches underneath the desk and flips the switch to unlock the doors to the upperclassmen residence hall.
“My job is to keep out strangers. I can spot someone who doesn’t belong here in a heartbeat,” said Williams.
Williams has been working the midnight to 7 a.m. shift at Wagner College since October of 2001, though this is by no means his first late-night gig. He always got stuck working nights, from the age of 16, whether it was loading trucks at Pathmark, working at a factory, or for the police force.
Adopted and “supposedly” born in the Bronx (“I’ve learned not to trust adoption records — people lie”), the 53 year-old grew up in Oakwood and got married at the young of age 20. He earned an associate’s degree in civil engineering at the College of Staten Island, but did not pursue a career in that field.
“I never seemed to do anything the smart way. If I was more on the ball I would have worked harder in high school, made a bigger thing out of college the first time around,” reflected Williams.
He went on to work in a factory in New Jersey that made sheet rock. After three years of physical labor, Williams took government tests to try and get a city job. He landed one as a bus sweeper. Unsatisfied and slightly embarrassed, Williams felt fortunate when he got a call from the New York City Housing Authority Police Department.
“It’s the same thing as the NYPD (New York Police Department) but you work for the Housing Authority, and even though the working conditions were a lot more dangerous, the pay and vacation time was the same as the NYPD at the time,” said Williams. “It was essentially the same as being a city cop today, except instead of riding around writing tickets, I walked around dangerous housing projects and locked people up — drug dealers, prostitutes . . .”
LONER KEPT WATCH
Williams worked in every one of the city’s housing developments on Staten Island at one point or another during his 20 years in uniform. Eventually, he was promoted to sergeant. He usually worked alone and loved to work outside, in the streets.
“It was like playing cops and robbers to me,” laughed Williams. “I didn’t like being inside and I still don’t.”
It was as a housing police officer that Williams learned to nip things in the bud — a skill he would keep with him; it was one of the first things he learned as a cop.
“Once you work in the same place every day you can’t just drive away from s — t, you have to deal with it, because if you don’t, the next day it’s worse,” said Williams. “If you let people see that you’re not going to do something, the next time it’s going to be worse. So you take care of it immediately, and you let them know how it’s going to be. You have to be consistent and pay attention to everything, take care of things as they occur so people learn not to mess with you and your job becomes progressively easier.”
After two decades with the police department at 44 years-old, Williams considered himself “too old to do it anymore.”
On a relatively standard family dispute call one night, Williams knocked on the door in question and was answered by a man who immediately replied, “Oh no, everything is fine, officer.” While other officers might have walked away, Williams instead called the dispatcher on the radio to ask whether the call was made by a male or a female. In this particular case, it was a female who had made the call. Williams then went back to the door, knocked, and said, “Listen, you’re going to let me in.”
“No, I’m not.”
Williams reiterated: “I need to talk to whoever is in there,” and the man replied, “I’m the only one here.”
Williams then said: “You got two choices: Either you’re opening the door or I’m opening the door.”
The door remained closed.
Williams kicked the door in, and said they started going at it; Williams had the fellow on the ground and they were rolling around when Williams looked up to see six pairs of shiny black police-issued shoes standing by the door — his rookie backups.
“You mind jumping in?” Williams had to ask, and it was at that point he decided it was time to retire; he felt that the newer officers were not of one mind, didn’t want to get their hands dirty, as Williams did. Soon, he filed for retirement.
Williams’ last day in the department was Aug. 31, 2001, and after applying for several jobs and not hearing back, the plane crashes of September 11 occurred. Suddenly, the job offers started rolling in, specifically in the field of security. His wife insisted that he not work in the city after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.
In the next few days, Wagner College called him back for an opportunity to work the front desk in one of the residence halls. The job would pay $10.15 an hour, an offer that nearly prompted Williams to walk out of the interview, but he paused when he learned that he and his family would be eligible to receive free tuition as well.
It was an offer he couldn’t refuse, and Williams spent his seven hours at the desk, five nights a week, wisely.
He wrote two books in his first few years, a memoir called “Twenty Years in the Bag,” about his life as a cop, and a novel entitled “The Toucher,” a dark psychological thriller, also reminiscent of his experiences as a cop.
He taught himself how to craft in the fashion of his Native American roots, making gifts for his family and friends.
When he started working the overnight shift, Williams said, Parker Towers Residence Hall was anarchy.
“You had kids here who had never had anyone tell them what to do for four years, from freshman to senior year, and nobody had ever stopped them from coming in the building, and then I showed up,” reflected Williams. “There had essentially been no rules.” With the help of the Residential Education staff at the time, who worked as late as 4 a.m. on the most chaotic nights, Williams radically transformed the culture of the residence hall within a few years, grandfathering in the new status quo.
AT LAST, A DEGREE
Last spring, Williams graduated with a degree in history and a minor in education.
His daughter, Jennifer Williams, a former resident assistant (RA) at Parker Towers, graduated with him.
Jenn, the president of Wagner’s History Club, won last year’s top undergraduate award from the History Department, the Verrazano Memorial Prize, and headed to Peru for the summer for a position in anthropological research with Wagner professor Gordon McEwan.
“If this thing taught me anything,” said her father, her fellow graduate, “I wish I’d been a better student when I was your age. I wish I had been able to live the life that you guys live. I wish I could have had that kind of fun . . . To me, when I was young, the thought of going to college was like, ‘Four more years? What do I wanna do that for?’ I didn’t understand what it could be.”
Ashraf Hasham was a student in former Advance reporter Tevah Platt’s journalism class at Wagner College last spring. He can be reached through the Advance at firstname.lastname@example.org.