When Jim was asked in the 1980’s to come to ANU he confidently said “no.” At the time he was living in Melbourne and had a Centre for Excellence to support a team of 60 researchers at RMIT. He couldn’t imagine having any reason for wanting to leave. He did however, promise to at least come and visit. While on campus he spoke to many of the staff and researchers that worked in the School that he would come to direct for 10 years. They all spoke passionately about ANU and encouraged Jim to make the move. But still he wasn’t convinced. It took the commitment of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research Professor Ian Ross, an unprecedented start up budget and finally a friend to convince him to come. Jim explains “it was in a dingy dorm room at Macquarie University, while we were attending a conference that [Emeritus Professor] Bob Crompton, another Endowment donor, convinced me to come to ANU. I’m glad I listened – it was the right decision.”
Jim came to ANU midway through 1988, and aside from a small flirtation with a commercial venture, he has been committed to research in the School ever since. Jim explains that “after ten years as Director I am stepping down. I have thoroughly enjoyed my role and I am very passionate about this School. The thing I love the most is its culture and its fundamental cooperative nature.”
For others, Jim’s retirement plans might seem more like work than play, but he is excited about his future role as an Emeritus Professor, because he will be able to throw himself back into research. “I have really missed the excitement of research. At the moment all my research is done through PhD candidates and other academic staff, so I don’t get to get my hands dirty. I might have been the School Director, but my colleagues have told me that if I want to come into the labs and start pressing buttons and turning knobs then I need to be supervised – I don’t blame them,” Jim explains playfully.
Now that he is retiring, Jim wants to share his story of giving with as many people as possible, in the hope that it will inspire and encourage others. Jim begins, “several years ago I realised that as the Director of the School, I would have to put my money where my mouth was if I wanted to ask others to give their support.” It was at about this point, when he was figuring out what he wanted to support, that “a very sad thing happened to our family. Our youngest son, who had been mentally ill for ten years, died just before his 30th birthday. His death focussed my mind on a few things and I thought: if I was going to give to the School I wanted to do something that would really make a difference to people’s lives.”
As Jim reflected on this, he realised he knew exactly what he wanted to support. Jim explains, “over the years I had noticed that there was a need for non-traditional funding that had the flexibility to support unique areas of need. Often the post graduate student convenor of our School had come to me with a plea to find some funds for student X or student Y who were having difficulties in their course. One I can remember was a very passionate PhD student with a family of five. The family had no income other than the PhD scholarship and the student needed more money to finish their research. Others have had stress related illnesses, some with mental illnesses.”
Jim continues, “I remember another student had schizophrenia, which was the illness that my son had. He had to pull out of physics here at the ANU because he couldn’t cope – so I decided I wanted to support students having personal difficulties. I want to be able to give them the support they need to stay in education through their period of trouble. I want this support to enrich their lives in ways that normal funding can’t.”
The Ben Williams Fund has been established by Jim and his family in memory of his son. Scholarships funded by the fund will go to students with a passion for physics who need support. Beyond the financial support provided, Jim wants to ensure that the scholarship recipients have support from staff and academics. He believes “that money given to disadvantaged areas without support can be wasted. I want to ensure that this Scholarship has a meaningful impact.” Jim hopes that Scholarships can be awarded for the first time in 2013.
These funded scholarships have been set up within the Endowment for Excellence, and have been funded by Jim and his family through fortnightly donations since 2010 as contributions to the ANU Workplace Giving program. The program allows staff to make donations to charities or causes within the ANU Endowment for Excellence through fortnightly payroll deductions. Jim explains why he decided to give through the program, “I realised that if I started to give before I retired then by the time I did, relatively painlessly, there would be a significant sum of money that was available. It was a family decision – we sat down and worked out what we needed to live comfortably and then what we could go without. The benefit of the program is that your donation is taken out of your pay and what you don’t receive you can’t miss.” The end result is a substantial endowed fund that, with interest earned, has enough money to support scholarships in perpetuity.
Jim wants his colleagues to know that “if you do it early enough and for long enough, no matter how little you put away, it is going to be quite substantial. I hope that my story inspires other staff members to start to think about some of the things that they would like to see happen when they leave – if they put a little money away with each pay then they will see it grow over the years and they can make those things that they feel passionate about actually happen. From small things, big things grow.”