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David Williams (MSW '75)

Posted April 28, 2017

David Williams, MSW '75
David P. Williams

Given an oh-so-modest Ohio State baccalaureate performance – read a whisper above 2.0 –  in September '73 my twenty-something self left New Jersey bound for Athens, doubtful I'd be able to cut it in graduate school. Rejected by Rutgers, my then state university, among others, I was thrilled when I finally received a notification of admission. “Official UGA Acceptance” printed right on the envelope was a nice touch and prevented the build up and letdown of opening yet another rejection letter.

I'd enjoyed a great interview with Dean Stewart, who appeared impressed that I knew the answer to “Who were the Berrigan Brothers?” (“Phil and Dan, radical priests who ran afoul of the FBI with their anti-Vietnam war protests,” said I.) Nonetheless, as the time neared for departing the Garden State, my anxiety about being able to succeed mounted and--using film as a metaphor--viewing the just-released film Deliverance tweaked Yankee fear I was stepping into Cool Hand Luke's chain gang.

Was I ever wrong. Athens, UGA and the MSW program were all AMAZING. First off, during orientation I learned I had an assistantship; it helped quell my anxiety since it meant I wouldn't have to take a part-time job and I could focus full-time on my studies. From day one the program proved to be, in the words of Dr. Polansky, ego-syntonic and a learning experience on multiple levels.  The curriculum was challenging and the faculty ran from knowledgeable to superior.

Even disappointment turned out to be to my advantage. Having had prior experience and with Kay Bigham's support, I was given the opportunity of taking the practice seminar exam a quarter early and going directly into field placement. I, very stupidly, flubbed the test! I came to UGA from a psychiatric hospital stint and, in an ill-conceived attempt to wow, I overlooked the obvious theme of the key essay question: diversity.

The failure taught valuable lessons of 1) avoid self-aggrandizement, 2) listen carefully to what is being asked of you, and 3) speak plainly and ditch shrink-talk. A slot opened in Dr. Polansky's panel and he took me on as an advisee.

Camaraderie was one of the best parts of the MSW experience. I had a placement first quarter with the Legal Aid Clinic, where I discovered law students saw themselves as in competition, whereas we supported one another. Collectively, ours was a bright group that brought a great deal to the academic table. Friday evenings on the deck at TK Hearty's Saloon, where we bonded over beers, were lots of fun. Regrettably, I can't recall all, but I do recall the names of a number of my classmates: Teresa Parsons, Jerry Buchanan, Dairlyn Chelette, Bob Winchell, Reg Muhl, Laura Fink, Linda Sloan-Finley, Steve Pearce, and Lisa Wilcox.

The most difficult component, by far, was the Ego Psychology course. I doubt anyone who shared the space has forgotten the classmate who, overwhelmed by the content, turned in her test booklet after only a few minutes. She sat on the Candler Hall steps and, it being a warm day, the windows were open and we could hear her racking sobs.

The most eye-opening experience came about through Standley Gellineau's race relations course. A faculty member who's name I can't recall was a pastor with a church in Augusta, and we Caucasian students were encouraged to attend a service. It was just awesome. The most comical recollection is Merle Foeckler's willingness to step out of the box in the supervision course by letting me use "how to ride a motorcycle" as a vehicle (pun intended) for teaching management by objectives.

With tongue in cheek, I can make the claim I mastered the entire breadth of social work the quarter I spent as Dr. John Turner's assistant. Turner, a visiting professor from UNC, was in the process of updating the Encyclopedia of Social Work and it was my task to read the entire document and select articles requiring revision. He was just the nicest man and absolutely humble about having been a Tuskegee Airman.

My primary field placement was at the Athens Mental Health Center. I discovered community mental health is like the café in Casablanca; everybody comes to Rick's and all manner of disorders comes through community mental health. Sue Stephenson was my supervisor to whom I owe a huge debt for her many lessons and kindnesses. I improved my knowledge of psychopathology and became a journeyman therapist.  Raised in steel country -- Lower Bucks County, Pennsylvania – during the 1950s and 60s, I had a lot to learn about tolerance. Perhaps Sue's greatest gift was opening my eyes to alternative lifestyles. I came to realize psychological health is about the ability to attach and love; plumbing preference is just a smokescreen.

Dr. Polansky accepting me as an advisee became one of the most consequential events of my life. In addition to being his student I became his mechanic, handyman, employee, and most of all his mentee. Knowing I was struggling to make ends meet, Dr. Polansky hired and paid me generously to grade tests, tune up his cars, and do odd jobs. Too intimidated to broach the topic with him, I first approached Dr. Reul about a career in academia. I couldn't bring myself to broach the topic with Dr. P. Knowing she'd spent a year as a migrant laborer I first approached Doctor Reul about going on for a doctorate. I respected her pragmatism and felt she was someone I could risk speaking to without fearing humiliation. She was wonderful, and in her steady, measured way encouraged me to pursue my dream. Dr. Reul explained that the field of social work education was young and that taking a doctorate in a related field was a viable path to becoming a social work educator. With her encouragement, I approached Dr. Polansky and discovered my fears were for naught as he was every bit as supportive. Having fallen in love with Athens I began nosing about the University seeking a 'related' field. I took a couple counselor education courses that fit the bill, so I applied and was accepted to begin the PhD program Fall quarter '75.

Serendipity struck when Dr. P. received a grant to repeat his rural child neglect research in an urban setting. He opted for Philadelphia and affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work. Given my roots lie in Southeastern Pennsylvania and I knew Philly, he offered a me job as a researcher. The deal was that I'd take one course a term for the two years of the study, after which I'd merge full-time with financial support into the doctoral program. Boy Howdy, just like that I became an Ivy Leaguer! With MSW in hand I finally brought myself to address Dr. Polansky as Norm. Ever the mentor, Dr. Polansky taught not just theory behind, but the business of research.

I returned to Athens and started on the counseling PhD in Fall '77. It may not have been my finest decision, since over time my aversion to academia metastasized and I discovered I'd boxed myself into a career corner. I realized I'm a clinician. I liked working in hospitals, not universities, and scuttled plans for a career in social work education. With a ton of chutzpah, mountains of hope and no small measure of luck, I parlayed joint authorship of six articles in refereed journals, and a book with University of Chicago Press while at Penn, into admission with advanced standing at Indiana State's newly APA-accredited counseling psychology program. I never anticipated, when I left Jersey, becoming a psychologist, but there you are.

I completed the degree and afterward I went on staff at the VA in Danville, Illinois where I interned. I discovered I enjoy psychological assessment and my job entailed a combination of neuro- and geropsychology. The assessment of legal competence is a special interest. I retired in 2010 and now, in contrast with 40 years spent in intangible professions, I spend much of my time wielding hammers and power tools building homes with Habitat for Humanity.

It's surprising how often I'm approached by social workers about crossing fields. My advice is this: Carefully consider the sacrifice required, since the MSW is a robust ticket and return on investment will likely not pay off. I spent six years out of the workforce pursuing the doctorate; moreover, I was funded, whereas many if not most nowadays attend expensive, free-standing PsyD programs. My last intern ran up a $200K debt. Financial cost also doesn't address personal cost. It takes a toll on relationships and pretty much eliminates personal time.

Doctor Polansky and I remained friends, and I am honored to have been one of his protégées. His encouragement to test myself and his many lessons – “there is nothing so practical as a good theory” – served me well, although I'm not sure if he ever came to terms with the fact that I became a psychoanalytic turncoat and adopted a cognitive behavioral orientation. He loved his wife, his job, his violin, and Hamish his Airedale.

I enjoyed working in the Department of Veteran's Affairs and I would encourage any clinician to pursue a career there. With my meager beginnings I felt like I completed an NFL Hail Mary pass when I got into an APA-accredited program, and as confident as Rocky Balboa scaling the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps when I defended my dissertation.

Mine was a great career and, make no mistake, possible only because Charlie Stewart and his 'trailblazing' team gave an academically shaky kid a shot.

Go Dawgs.