Former state lawmaker Penny Williams, advocate for education and women, dies at 80

Penny Williams, a former state lawmaker from Tulsa best known as a champion for public education and equal rights for women, died Monday, her family said.

She was 80.

A memorial service will be held April 28 at Trinity Episcopal Church with a time to be announced.

Per her wishes, Williams’ body is being donated to the University of Oklahoma medical school.

A Democrat, Williams’ legislative career spanned 23 years and included eventful stints in both the state House (1981 to 1988) and Senate (1989 to 2004).

It was as a senator, during which time she chaired the Senate’s Education Committee, that Williams co-authored House Bill 1017, a landmark 1990 education funding and reform package that has been in the news again of late.

In a recent Tulsa World editorial in advance of a statewide teacher walkout, Williams talked about how provisions of HB 1017 had been watered down or outright abolished, harming education in Oklahoma.

Wrote Williams, “We have stopped believing in our students and teachers. We lost faith in the power of Oklahoma education and did not pay our bills as promised.” However, she added, “Oklahoma’s can-do sense and its high spirits are here, still. The key is leadership.”

Over her time in office, Williams also spoke out on women’s issues.

As a state representative, she headed the Equal Rights Amendment Committee, after being tapped for the role by Republican Henry Bellmon and Democrat David Boren. Of ERA, which ultimately failed in Oklahoma, Williams, in a 2017 interview with the World, said: “It was always about giving women control over their own lives, their own decisions.”

On the outlook for women today, she added: “Improvements have been made, but the culture isn’t quite where we need to be — with a lot of strong women speaking to authority. … Most pictures of leadership and power are pretty male-filled. You don’t see many women.”

Williams’ other legislative achievements included the bill that established the former University Center at Tulsa, a public upper-division and graduate university center. Before that, Tulsa had been the largest city in the U.S. without a public four-year college. She also authored the bill that created Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics.

An arts advocate, Williams had served as Senate chairwoman of the Legislative Arts Caucus, authored the Art in Public Places Act, and commissioned and placed artwork in the Capitol building.

Former Senate President Pro Tem Stratton Taylor was her colleague in both the Senate and House, and remained a good friend afterward. “Penny was a champion for excellence,” he said. “She absolutely wanted to move Oklahoma forward. And she was the biggest cheerleader that Tulsa ever had.”

He said he will miss her sense of humor, which “we all loved,” and her generosity.

“Penny grew up in a world very different from mine,” he added, “but she was very kind to a poor kid who’d gotten himself elected to the Legislature.”

Rodger Randle, Williams’ former legislative colleague whom she succeeded in the Senate, said, “Tulsa will be forever enriched” for her efforts.

Randle, Senate author on the bill that created University Center, said Williams, as House author, “had an uphill battle, and the passage of it was a credit to the depth of her commitment to education.”

Added Randle: “University Center does not exist anymore, but what Tulsa has now in OU-Tulsa, OSU-Tulsa, etc., would not have existed without Penny.”

“I would say that probably there is no one that had a bigger impact on education in Oklahoma than Penny Williams,” said former House Speaker Steve Lewis. “There are just so many ideas she brought forward and was successful in getting done.”

Former Gov. Brad Henry, who served with Williams in the Senate, said she was “a fierce advocate for teachers, students, and improving public education funding at all levels.”

“Penny was, in my estimation, one of the most caring and compassionate legislators to ever grace the halls of the State Capitol building,” Henry said. “She was one of a kind – a bit quirky, tenacious, a dear friend to all who knew her, and a true public servant who always put the best interests of the people of Oklahoma first.”

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said, “Penny Williams served Oklahoma with honor and distinction in the state Senate. As chair of the Senate Education Committee, she was a tireless advocate for public education and always a champion of her hometown of Tulsa.”

Born Penny Baldwin in New York City, Williams grew up in South Carolina. She attended Sarah Lawrence College, the University of Tehran and the University of Tulsa.

Among her honors, Williams was named to the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame, and was a recipient of the Kate Barnard Award from the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women, for her contributions to the state as a woman in public service.

She had served on the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence board, the University of Tulsa Board of Visitors, the St. Gregory’s College Board of Trustees, and the Tulsa Committee on Foreign Relations.

Williams’ son, Joe Williams, said his mother would want to be remembered as “somebody who loved this state and did her best to help build it.”

Survivors include her three sons, Joe Williams, Peter Williams and Jamie Williams; four grandchildren; and two sisters, Cassie Kernan and Helen Bonsall.

Memorial donations may be made to the Sutton Avian Research Center or the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics Foundation.

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