By Anne Morrissy
In Williams Bay, there is a title bestowed upon those people who complete all their years of schooling from kindergarten through high school graduation at the single-campus Williams Bay School — a “Bay Lifer.” David B. Williams is one such person, but he has taken the concept of being a Bay Lifer to new heights. Now 82 years old, he has lived in Williams Bay nearly all of his life, and served as the village’s municipal judge for 36 of those years. Even that impressive run is relatively short compared to his relationship with another local organization: beginning in 1957 at the age of 17, he started working for the Geneva Lake Water Safety Patrol, today headquartered on the Williams Bay campus of George Williams College of Aurora University, and began a 60+ year tenure that has earned him the title of “longest-serving patroller.” On top of that, Williams is the owner of a nearly 120-year-old historic Williams Bay home that was first built by his grandfather at the turn of the 20th century.
Today Williams splits his time between Naples, Florida, and an apartment in Walworth, but Williams Bay will always be home. First things first, though: let’s put a common misconception to rest. Despite having the same last name as Williams Bay’s original village founder, David B. Williams and founder Israel Williams are not related, though he says people often make that assumption. In fact, David B. Williams is a scion of another family important to Williams Bay history. He is descended from a man whose name will sound familiar to local library-goers and astronomy buffs alike: Storrs B. Barrett.
EYES ON THE SKIES
According to Williams, his maternal grandfather Barrett first came to Williams Bay when he was a Ph.D. student in the department of astrophysics at the University of Chicago in the 1890s, studying under the guidance of Professor George Ellery Hale, now widely recognized as one of the greatest astronomers of the modern era. The University of Chicago as we know it today was a brand-new institution at the time – the first students matriculated on its Hyde Park campus in the fall of 1892. The University had persuaded Hale to accept the fledgling professorship by promising to build a large observatory for his department’s use. According to Williams, Hale enlisted the help of a graduate student — Williams’ grandfather Storrs Barrett — to identify and secure a site for the new observatory, the construction of which would be funded by Chicago transportation tycoon Charles T. Yerkes.
Together, Hale and Barrett recommended Williams Bay for its dark skies and its direct rail connection to Chicago, and construction began on Yerkes Observatory in 1895. The observatory they were building was the most cutting-edge facility in the world, and today still houses the world’s largest refracting telescope, which was the best technology in the world at that time. “My grandfather realized that he would most likely be spending the entirety of his career at Yerkes Observatory, so he bought up all the [adjacent] land on Parkhurst down to Geneva Street and Constance Boulevard that was available at that time for residential development,” Williams explains.
Yerkes Observatory was dedicated and opened in 1897. Five years later in 1902, Barrett and his wife Ida Clark Barrett built a home a short distance away on Parkhurst Place. According to Williams, the home’s design was based upon by Ida’s close friendship with Frances Kinsley Hutchinson, who together with her husband Charles Hutchinson (president of the Art Institute of Chicago), maintained an estate called Wychwood on Geneva Lake. In 1901, the Hutchinsons had hired Prairie-style architect Robert Closson Spencer, Jr., to design a gatehouse for their property, and shared the plans with the Barretts. The Barretts liked the plans so much that they built a nearly identical version of it for themselves on two acres of their land closest to the Observatory. “My grandfather built the house so that he would only have to walk five minutes to work,” Williams laughs.
PUTTING DOWN ROOTS
Williams’s mother Emily Barrett was born in the house in 1911, the third of three daughters born to Storrs and Ida Barrett, and it is thanks to her generational stewardship that the house has remained in Williams’ family from the day it was built. Though she briefly moved away from Williams Bay to attend college and then again following her first marriage, she moved the family back to Williams Bay when Williams was around five years old. In 1952, the historic house served as the location of her second wedding when she married Williams’ stepfather Mark Williams.
Both Emily Barrett and Mark Williams shared a deep love of music — she was an accomplished musician and a graduate of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, and he was an early director of the Music by the Lake series, which began at George Williams College in 1951. It is a passion which they passed on to their son. “I am an opera nut,” Williams says. “I’ve loved it as far back as I can remember.” Famed tenor Jussi Björling has been a lifelong favorite — Williams eventually named his beloved classic wooden boat after a Björling art song titled Till Havs. (Translated from the Swedish, “till havs” means “to the sea.”)
As a young man, his interests were not limited to music, in particular opera. In 1957 at the age of 17, Williams approached Williams Bay physical education teacher and coach Dick Scherff about a summer job with the Water Safety Patrol, which Scherff had recently been hired to direct. “I was younger than all the other guys at the time, and Dick Scherff didn’t quite know what to do with me,” Williams laughs. “So he put me on Boat #1 with him.” It turned out to be a great fit. Williams went on to work nine summers on the Boat Crew of the Water Safety Patrol, through his undergraduate years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his time in law school at the University of Chicago. Not long after receiving his J.D., he assumed the role of legal counsel for the Water Safety Patrol, a position he held for 50 years.
A JUDICIOUS APPROACH
Following his graduation from law school in 1965, Williams joined the Delavan law firm of Richardson & Hammett (later to be renamed Hammett and Williams prior to a merger with Brennan, Steil, Basting & McDougall), where he would remain throughout his long career as an attorney in Walworth County. A few years later, he met the woman who would become his wife. “I thought she was absolutely gorgeous,” he remembers. They dated casually at first but he says he knew she was the one when she agreed to attend the opera with him more than once. He and his wife Kathy were married in 1971 and went on to have two sons together.
In 1978, Williams also ran for the position of judge for the newly created Municipal Court in Williams Bay. Winning the position, he found he enjoyed the role immensely. He went on to run 17 more times, and the voters of Williams Bay continued to vote for him every two years. “I think I was a good judge. I enjoyed doing it, I think I was fair,” he says. “There are numerous decisions that I remember. In one case, a lady got arrested for having 23 or 24 cats in her house, and neighbors complained. The police charged her, and we had a trial. It was true that 24 cats were not technically prohibited in one home within the village limits. I found her not guilty. I felt sympathetic with her. I knew the village didn’t want that many cats in one house. Somehow, in the course of her trial, I obtained information from her that she was planning to move out of the village anyhow, so I found her not guilty because the officers had written the ticket under the wrong ordinance. I gave this lady a break, knowing that she was going to move out.” By the time he retired from the position in 2014, Williams had served 36 years as municipal judge, some of those alongside his friend and fellow Bay Lifer Harold Friestad, who served as village president from 1989 to 1996.
Now retired from all of his professional responsibilities, Williams says he enjoys the slower pace of life. Among his many other hobbies, besides opera, he has recently become an enthusiastic birder. In the summer and fall, he likes to take advantage of an honorary lifetime membership to the Lake Geneva Yacht Club, bestowed after his many years of membership and volunteer work as the Principal Race Officer for sailing races and regattas there. In fact, he is now one of the longest-serving members of the club.
Since his wife Kathy passed away in November 2020, Williams has downsized and opted to rent out the family home in Williams Bay. He hopes that one day he may be able to pass its legacy on to another generation of Barrett descendants — he is a proud grandfather of three, and he hopes that one day his grandson Storrs may get to experience life in Williams Bay as he and his children have. “It’s just a great place to grow up and live,” he says. “I’ve got great memories.”