Robert M. Williams passed away on May 13, 2020 at home with his wife and children after a two-year battle with prostate cancer. Williams — a Colorado State University Distinguished Professor, CSU’s highest honor, and Professor Emeritus — was a key player in the university’s research success for the last 40 years.
Provost and Executive Vice President Rick Miranda said Williams was a master in synthetic organic chemistry and drug discovery.
“Bob raised the profile of our university research efforts enormously over his career and helped keep us on the map for decades,” said Miranda, who knew Williams for nearly two decades.
Williams held 28 patents; authored three textbooks; wrote and published 354 technical papers; testified as an expert witness for more than 40 patent-litigation suits; provided consulting services for over 15 companies; co-directed two startups; organized 16 scientific meetings; and directed the Colorado Center for Drug Discovery during his tenure at CSU.
Jan Nerger, dean of the College of Natural Sciences, said Williams was the consummate scholar.
“He was formidably intelligent, rigorous as a scholar, and an exemplary teacher and mentor,” said Nerger. “He was dedicated to his science and to his students. He was passionate about his beliefs, and I could always rely on him to express his opinions! He will be deeply missed.”
An active and outstanding scientist
Williams joined CSU’s Department of Chemistry in 1980 and served as the head of organic chemistry for the department. During his time at CSU, Williams produced groundbreaking research in bio-organic chemistry and biosynthesis with an emphasis on antitumor and antimicrobial antibiotics.
Rick Finke, professor in the Department of Chemistry, said Bob had an exceptional knowledge of organic chemistry, biosynthesis and related areas.
“You didn’t want to get in an argument about arrow-pushing mechanisms with him, as you were just going to lose,” said Finke.
Williams also cared deeply about CSU and the Department of Chemistry.
“Indeed, I will always remember Bob as someone who was going to stand by his principles no matter what when it came to the best interests of CSU and the Department of Chemistry,” said Finke.
In 2014, the College of Natural Sciences established a new Professorship in honor of Williams: the Dr. Robert Williams Professorship in Organic Chemistry. This professorship enables CSU to recruit an established organic chemist or chemical biologist who is an outstanding scholar, gifted teacher, exceptional researcher, and someone who has made significant contributions to his or her field of study.
“Bob was a tremendously active and amazing scientist,” said Jan Leach, associate dean for research in the College of Agriculture and the current chair of the University Distinguished Professors at CSU. “He was a valued and active member of the University Distinguished Professors. We will miss him dearly.”
Williams’ career highlights went beyond his research when he met royalty, Professor HRH Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol of Thailand, not once, but twice. Princess Chulabhorn visited Williams and his lab in 2015, and in 2017, Williams was invited to her 60th birthday in Bangkok, Thailand to give the opening lecture of the conference, “Innovation in Cancer and Care.” This experience was one he loved telling stories about to his friends, family, colleagues and students.
A selfless and loyal mentor
Williams graduated 49 Ph.D. students and 10 M.S. students and had 81 postdoctoral students come through his lab. Dedicated to their success, he involved many students in his research, training new generations of scientists to make advances in bio-organic chemistry and biosynthesis. Many of his students now have prestigious careers as scientists at pharmaceutical companies, chemists in law, educators at universities and more.
“Bob was an incredibly selfless and loyal mentor,” said Kimberly Koehn, a former Williams Group member. “He was a joy to be around, cared deeply about his students, and made us feel like family. I am grateful for the support he provided and the lessons he taught. Bob will be missed dearly and will forever be in our memory.”
Koehn remembers Williams as someone who fully enjoyed science and life, and always encouraged his students to do the same.
“Bob’s approach to mentoring was very hands-off,” said Maggi Braasch-Turi, a current member of the Williams Group. “He gave us the freedom to make decisions, make mistakes, and learn from them confidently. In my opinion, these are skills that can’t be taught, only learned from experience.”
Braasch-Turi said every winter since Williams started his career at CSU, he went to Steamboat Springs for a ski trip, which started as a solo excursion and morphed into a weekend-long vacation with collaborators, family, and his research group. Braasch-Turi recalls her favorite part was eating dinner as a group, where everyone came together, not as just a group, but as a family.
“Bob would always give a toast, thanking us for all the hard work we’ve been doing and then telling us about future plans and goals for the upcoming year,” said Braasch-Turi. “Afterward, he would fill the time with stories. This year was the best post-dinner hang-out since I joined the group four years ago. Andrew, one of the undergrads in the group, started to talk to Bob about music. Soon after that, the room was filled with music, laughter, and even more stories.”
His students remember Williams for his mentorship as well as his joy they witnessed at ski trips, during outings at the Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant or connecting with him on one of his many interests: skiing, motorboats, cycling, golfing, woodworking, painting, science fiction, cooking and the Red Sox, to name a few.
“I’ll never forget the first time I walked into his office, and when he heard I was a Red Sox fan, the smile that got over his face,” said Christine Dunne, a former Williams Group member. “He immediately started showing me pictures of him and the stadium. It’s crazy to think that the reason I’m back in Boston is because Bob taught me to chase a dream I had, that I could both be a scientist and work in law, which was also something he was always so passionate about.”
Dunne said Williams has impacted many lives, especially chemists.
“I’m forever thankful for the opportunity I had to learn from Bob,” said Dunne. “We are where we are because Bob taught us perseverance, hard work, dedication and what that could bring us. We miss you, Bob.”
Williams’ favorite quote was by Jimi Hendrix: “Knowledge speaks; Wisdom listens.” A quote by which he lived his life.
While at CSU, Williams started a band, which Miranda refers to as “The Chemistry Band” as many of its members were chemists. Miranda said, “He was a great guitarist. He was a rockstar.”
During the early years of knowing Williams, Miranda recalled a time when Williams reached out to him and said, “I hear you’re an okay musician.” Miranda played guitar, and the group needed a bass guitar player. Miranda quickly learned bass guitar and joined the band for around 10 years, playing at department get-togethers, birthday parties and holiday parties.
Miranda can be heard on Williams’ album “Strat’osphere” playing bass guitar and even singing backup vocals for a few of the songs. Describing the night they recorded those songs, Miranda remembers the details from picking up Subway sandwiches on the way to band member Dave Beegle’s house to the tricked-out sound studio in his basement. “That was one of the most fun evenings of my career here at CSU,” said Miranda.
Williams and his band recorded three albums (Strat’ovarious, Strat’osphere, and Strat’ogee) with over 50 songs, some of which are available on YouTube including “Pali Gap” and “May this be Love” by Jimi Hendrix.
Williams’ accomplished life was filled with science, mentorship, the outdoors, music, friendships and family. He is survived by his wife, Jill; sons, Ridge and Rainier; brother Bill (Lorraine); brother and sister-in-law, Rob (Ginger) and Rachel; four nieces and two nephews; and his mother and father-in-law, Paul and Judy.
A celebration of life will be held later this year in Fort Collins. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the Dr. Robert M. Williams Professorship Endowment in Organic Chemistry in his honor at https://advancing.colostate.edu/WILLIAMSPROFESSORSHIP.