Alton Lee Williams was born in Dallas on March 1st, 1942 to parents who didn’t fully appreciate the angel they’d created. He would often introduce himself as “Al, but you can just call me Grampa.” I used to love joking that when the world ended, the only people left would be Keith Richards, Grampa, and the roaches, because he just sort of seemed indestructible. It’s hard to imagine there are very many people who lived a life as storied and eventful as his, and it’s hard to sum up a man who packed so much life into 81 years and who meant so much to so many. Grampa had one simple request regarding how he wanted to be spoken about following his death: “shoot straight.”
He was just 6 when his father passed away and the woman who gave birth to him took the opportunity to dump him and his older sister off at an orphanage in St. Louis where he ate so much chicken that he refused to ever touch it again for the rest of his life. As a young kid, he hopped trains trying to run away from the orphanage and once made it as far as North Dakota before he was found and dragged back. As a teen, he was kicked out of school for fighting… his high school principal. At 17, he got a fake ID and joined the army where he would serve in Vietnam as a part of the 101st airborne. And then he was out west in California, riding with a biker gang known as the Sons of Satan where he got both the nickname “Red,” and a very tasteful tattoo that he wouldn’t let any of us grandkids look at. Legend has it, he also drunkenly played the drums for Merle Haggard at a bar out in Cali one night. Grampa’s rough beginnings made him scrappy, because all he ever knew was survival. Every lesson learned was learned the hard way. Every bit of family he had was found and chosen. He never tried to hide that, because he had no shame about where he came from. He was honest above all else.
More integral to his story than his hellacious early life is what he went on to build from those foundations. At 21, he met Sharon Mills—a tall, fiery, and devoutly religious woman who would be the perfect foil to his wild ways. They married after knowing each other for only two weeks, and went on to share 58 years of love and life. Together they shared four children: James and Sheryl (planned,) Mary (surprise!) and Christie (a complete shock.) Grampa would often remind us that Gramma saved him. Following her death, someone had the gall to ask him if he was planning to go on a date with a woman from the church, and he looked at me with angry tears in his eyes and reminded me that there would never be another, because that kind of love happens “only once.”
Their lives were dedicated to both the church and to their family, and not just the biological kind. If you needed a home, a hug, a warm meal, or if your family just kind of sucked—they were your family now. They hosted foreign exchange students for years, and Grampa headed the teen group at church where he made an impact that’s hard to give justice to. Ask any of his children or grandchildren, and they will tell you the same: Grampa was safe. There was never an occasion to lie to this man. You could tell him absolutely anything, no matter how scary or embarrassing or serious, and you knew it was safe with him. He was uncommonly compassionate, understanding, and trustworthy. Maybe you got your first period in the middle of a family dinner and got so embarrassed you started crying, and he’d just laugh and go “it’s okay baby, I got pads out in the glove box.” Maybe you got into serious trouble, the kind you were scared to tell your parents about, but you needed help and guidance anyway. You’d call Grampa. But you also knew that if you were out of line, he wouldn’t hesitate to fix you with a stern look or change of tone in his voice—and that was really all it took. He was hard to disappoint, but Lord would you feel it if you did disappoint him. He was a pillar of strength and safety in both his family and community. His lack of stability and family in his early years could have hardened him and made him selfish. He could have continued to live hard and fast in survival mode. In some ways, he did. But more importantly, he turned that pain into something beautiful and so much bigger than himself. He created the family he needed. He offered the guidance and wisdom that he had to earn the hard way. He became the safety net he was denied. He became an angel to just about every person he encountered. He retired from the oil field after working for 65 years.
If you knew him, you loved him. If you knew him, he made you try an obscenely hot pepper or a mystery meat he killed and cooked at least once. If you knew him, he probably encouraged you to jump out of an airplane or into an icy river at least once. If you knew Grampa, you had family to come home to.
I think we all sort of felt like Grampa was going to live forever, and in a way, he will. Whether you knew him as Al, Dad, or Grampa—neither his impact nor his legacy will soon or easily be forgotten. May he rest a thousand times more peacefully than he lived, and may his stories live on through those of us who were lucky enough to hear them.
I realize this is a very lengthy obituary, but I did warn you that it’s almost impossible to neatly sum up a life so fully lived over the course of just over eight decades. If I could encourage you to take anything away from what you’ve just read, let it be this: be like Grampa. Be kind and compassionate, and take care of your people. Meet people where they’re at with unconditional love and understanding. Be honest, trustworthy, and have enough integrity to keep the secrets people share with you. Be tough, bold, and courageous. Do something that scares you at least once. And above all else, shoot straight.
Rest in peace, Grampa. We love you.
Celebration of Life service June 24, 2023 at Hi-Land Christian Church in Pampa, Texas. Time to be determined.
Preceded by wife of 58 years, Sharon Williams, parents, George Williams and Emma Griffin, sister, Velma (Everett) Free, son, James Williams, son in law, Marvin Allan “PeeWee” Turner, great grandson, Luka Turner.
Survived by daughters Christine (Willard) Kiper, Sheryl (Scotty) Gafford, Rebekah Nunn, Mary Turner and Christie Mitchell. Grandchildren Josh (Nicole) Gafford, Johnny Smith, Jeremy (Lindsay) Mitchell, Ashley Kiper, Ryan Gafford, Simona Cruz, Levi (Mikah) Nunn, Rachal (Manny) Villagrana, Tiffany Mitchell, Zach (Stefanie) Turner, Kaleigh Horrter, Tonya Kiper, Megan Gragg, Amaris (Luke) King, Shila Turner, Clayton Mitchell.
Foreign Exchange Students, Claudio (Italy), Vladimir (Ukraine), Deschna (Germany), Marzia (Italy), Pamela (Columbia), Heindrich (Germany), Engg (Thailand), Simone (Switzerland),, Ruut (Finland) and Patrizia (Germany), numerous great grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”