Life at Saint John's University honed careers of service for Chuck and Paul Williams
Academics Alum Features Athletics Campus & Community
February 27, 2023
By Frank Rajkowski
(Below is a story from the coming spring issue of Saint John's Magazine. It will drop through the mail to SJU alumni in mid-March, after which it also will be available on the CSB and SJU Marketing and Communications home page)
There’s a lot to the story that brought Chuck and Paul Williams to Saint John’s University, and just as much to the tale of the successful careers the two brothers have embarked on in the years since leaving campus.
But common threads run through many of those chapters: A call to service, a desire to challenge the status quo and a deep sense of the value of community foremost among them.
“Our parents were very active in the Catholic social justice movement,” said Paul, a 1984 Saint John’s graduate and former deputy mayor of St. Paul. He is now president and CEO of Project for Pride in Living, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit serving lower-income families and individuals through job training and by providing affordable housing.
“They were a bi-racial couple. My mom (Janet) came from a white, German Catholic family in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul. My dad (Charles) came from a very prominent Black Catholic family in the Rondo neighborhood. So there was always a very strong connection to the church – particularly to its social justice work and issues – in our family. That connected us to Saint John’s.”
“My mom was the chief soloist at the St. Paul Cathedral for 49 years,” added Chuck, a 1982 graduate and standout collegiate athlete who is now a divisional vice president of global marketing for Abbott Vascular, which develops critical medical technology for cardiovascular conditions.
“There was always this mix of the traditional, which my mom was involved in, and the contemporary, which my mom, dad and many family members were all part of. A sort of journey of independence and prodding the church to become more modern.”
One of Janet’s brothers, Job Dittberner, was a member of the Saint John’s Abbey during the 1960s and 70s. He taught history at SJU before leaving the monastery in 1975 to pursue a successful career in diplomacy, including working as director of committees and studies for the international secretariat of the North Atlantic Assembly, a NATO organization, in Brussels, Belgium.
“We’d visit him a lot growing up,” said Chuck, whose great-uncle Fr. Arnold Dittberner was also part of the abbey for over 72 years until his death in 1999. “My earliest recollections of Saint John’s are of the church and the Gregorian chants of the monk choirs.
“Back then, when you came to campus, you’d first come into the circle in front of the church. I can vividly remember coming out of the light and into the darkness of the Great Hall.
“We’d walk around the corner in that subdued lighting and let Job know we were there. Then he’d come down and meet us.”
In addition, the Williams family – which also included sister Madeline and younger brother Daniel – played host at their St. Paul home to Black students from Chicago attending Saint John’s.
“There was a program called ABC – A Better Chance,” Paul said. “It was a national program (and still exists today) that recruited Black students to go into college and provided them with support. We were a host family, so we’d have students for the holidays or even some who lived with us in our third-floor bedroom at various points.”
Charles, who went on to become a prominent District Court referee, and Janet, who served as a cantor and song leader at various faith communities, had also been folksingers. They spent time at the Ecumenical Institute (now the Collegeville Institute) on campus.
“My dad told me that at one point they came up to Saint John’s to do a lecture session with students on interracial marriage and interracial relationships,” Paul said. “Job was the one who invited them up to do that.”
Chuck went to high school at St. Paul Academy, while Paul and the rest of his siblings attended Breck.
“Our parents sacrificed everything for our education and to get us into high-end college preparatory schools,” Paul said. “There was kind of a struggle and tension they had with the Catholic church in some areas. They battled hard for change.
“Chuck and I both went to St. Luke’s grade school in St. Paul, and the traditional path was to go from there to schools like Cretin-Derham Hall or St. Thomas Academy. My parents pushed back on that. We didn’t follow that model. We were expected to be our own people and follow our own paths.”
For Chuck, that path led to Saint John’s. He chose SJU over other schools including St. Thomas, where his father had been named Mr. Tommy in 1958 – the first Black student to earn that honor.
“Two things really pushed it over the edge for me,” he said. “I was familiar with Saint John’s because we had family history there. And the other part was it was just far enough away from home that I could have some independence.”
He made a big impact in Collegeville where he double majored in political science and business administration and excelled in athletics. He earned All-MIAC and All-American honors in football during the 1982 season, playing on both sides of the ball.
In track and field, he finished second in the 200-meter dash at the MIAC Championships in 1981 and was part of a conference champion 4x400 relay team. The following season, he won a conference title in the 100-meter dash.
“He was incredible,” said current SJU head football coach Gary Fasching ’81, a teammate of Chuck’s during his time with the Johnnies. “When people ask me who the best athletes I’ve seen here are, Chuck definitely has to be in that category. He had such great speed and athleticism. He made some incredible catches when they put him on offense, but on the defensive side he was just outstanding.
“And he had such a great personality. He got along with everyone on the team and was always fun to be around. He was really the epitome of what you’d want in a Saint John’s athlete.”
Paul, meanwhile, followed his brother to Collegeville – drawn there for many of the same reasons.
“Chuck, of course, was a very prominent football player,” Paul said. “So when I came to Saint John’s, I was not only following my brother, but a pretty big name on campus. I walked in here with the benefit of his name and reputation, which I probably exploited to its fullest extent.
“I chose Saint John’s, like Chuck had, largely based on tradition, reputation and our family history. It was funny, though, because a lot of my friends at Breck went to schools like Harvard or Stanford. There were only two of us in my class who went to Saint John’s. It was me and a guy named Chris Brandl, whose father John was a prominent state legislator and who played a big role in the history of Saint John’s – even serving as a trustee here.”
John Brandl later played a big role in helping Paul gain admission to the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota after he had completed his undergraduate degree at SJU.
“I was a career B-minus student,” Paul said with a smile. “I had a 2.64 GPA coming out of both high school and college. When I was younger, our mother used to say that I had a rich inner life. What she meant was that I was thinking and I was listening. While I didn’t have a lot of academic discipline, what I did have were really good social skills.
“John Brandl had known I was going to Saint John’s,” he continued. “He put a bug in my ear and in the ears of others to encourage this kid. He was a professor down at the Humphrey School. And he and another Catholic leader named Jim Jernberg, who also taught at the Humphrey School and had been a close friend of our family, conspired to get me down to Humphrey. So there again was that value of community and the network you build up.”
Before that happened though, Paul thrived socially at SJU, playing in local bands and joining the rugby team where he made friendships that have remained strong over the years.
“I’m still part of a network of probably 50 alumni, a lot of whom tie back to the rugby team,” he said. “I ended up playing another 20 years down here for a team called the East Side Banshees, which is where a lot of other SJU graduates ended up playing as well.
“I’m part of a decades-long tradition that stays connected to this day. It’s really a fabulous network of guys.”
After completing his master’s degree, Paul embarked on a career of service to the community – working as a grant maker for the St. Paul and Minnesota Foundation, as well as The Minneapolis Foundation. He also served as executive director of Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).
In 2010, he was appointed as St. Paul’s deputy mayor by then-mayor Chris Coleman, a longtime friend whom he’d known since grade school. It’s a post he served in for three-and-a-half years, serving as essentially the city’s chief operating officer.
“The former deputy mayor, Ann Mulholland, had served quite well for four years, and when she announced she was leaving, I went into panic mode,” Coleman recalled. “Then one day, a mutual friend of both of us asked me if I’d thought about Paul Williams. I said ‘Paul is amazing, but he’s going all over the country working for LISC. Why would he take this job?
“If someone of Paul’s caliber was interested in the job, I would have been a fool not to grab him. He had such an expansive knowledge of city issues from his work with LISC and positions he’d held before that.
“He had the perfect temperament for the job,” Coleman continued. “A deputy mayor is wrestling 100 things a day – everything from snowplowing to building sports facilities to light rail transportation. You’re basically dealing with almost everything under the sun and you have to be able to have a large view and keep track of a lot of different things at the same time.
“It’s also a real values position. It’s where things that matter to you really play out. Housing issues, education, racial equality – these are all issues Paul is passionate about and that showed.”
Beyond his work in the mayor’s office, Paul has also served or is serving on a number of boards and councils including the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, HealthPartners, Inc., the St. Paul Port Authority and the Minnesota Ballpark Authority – the latter a subject particularly close to his heart thanks to his Saint John’s alumni ties.
“Long before he was named to the stadium commission, he’d been a part of about 20 Saint John’s graduates who take an annual trip to visit ballparks large and small,” Chuck said of a group that also includes Paul Marsnik, a global business professor at CSB and SJU and the academic director of the Entrepreneur Scholars program.
And, of course, there is his role running Project for Pride in Living, which he has held since 2014. It’s a job in which he is able to utilize many of the organizational skills he has built up throughout his long career.
“It’s something that goes back even to my high school years,” said Paul, who also recently co-chaired the Governor’s Council on Economic Expansion as well the 2016 search committee for St. Paul’s new police chief. “I’m the one who organized the high school parties and brought folks together. That’s a skill. It’s community organizing and relationship-building. And it’s a skill I’ve brought with me into every job I’ve had over many years now.”
Chuck, meanwhile, always knew his career path was in business. But it took a few stops to find his true calling.
He spent a few years in advertising before working five years for National Car Rental and eight more at Ecolab. He then entered the medical supply business with Medtronic in 2000.
“Being asthmatic, I’ve always been interested in medical things,” he recalls. “I had been working for Ecolab, and because of a variety of circumstances, I decided I wanted to do something different with my life. I was recruited by someone at Medtronic and I was hired by a very nontraditional manager who took a chance even though I had no medical experience.
“It’s funny the way careers change. The number of people who actually set out to do something and that ends up being what they actually do for an entire career, I think, is pretty few. Most of us have twists and turns in our career path – some expected and some unexpected. I’ve been fortunate to be able to get where I am today. I’ve worked hard, but I also benefitted from that manager’s decision to take a chance on me.”
Paul (left) and Chuck Williams credit Saint John's University with firing their academic and athletic interests and putting them on a path toward successful business careers.
Drawing on Time at SJU
It was his time at Saint John’s that Chuck said helped prepare him for those career twists and turns.
“Saint John’s really fired my interest in business,” he said. “There were two professors I had here who really inspired me.
“The first was John Kidwell, who was teaching as a visiting professor after having been an executive at 7-Up. The second was a guy named Jack Farley (a professor of management at CSB and SJU from 1978-94). He was a longtime St. Paul Catholic who’d been part of consulting practices and had worked at Northwestern Mutual Life and other places. They both really fired my interest in business in general.”
Other professors also left a lasting impact – all proof, Chuck said, of the benefit of a liberal arts education.
“There’s no question about that,” he said. “Two of the things that really shaped my intellectual pursuits were the grounding in reading and writing I got at St. Paul Academy, then again at Saint John’s. There were a variety of people who contributed to sort of honing those skills.
“I’m a huge believer in a liberal arts education, and I fully believe that my time at Saint John’s helped shape a lot of the skills that had first been incubated during my high school career.”
Paul shares those sentiments, and added that the sense of community he experienced during his time in Collegeville played a big role in helping prepare him for the roles he’s held since.
“That liberal arts training and thinking is something I really believe in,” he said. “But I think the power of community and the network that exists at Saint John’s was just as important to me. And that goes far beyond just socializing. There was a real support system of other students and faculty there that made a big difference in my life.
“I’m still close to many of those people today. My time at Saint John’s had a tremendous impact on me.”
Chuck and Paul Williams, who graduated from Saint John's University in 1982 and 1984, respectively, have gone on to varied and successful careers. Chuck is a divisional vice president of global marketing for Abbott Vascular, which develops critical medical technology for cardiovascular conditions. And Paul, a former deputy mayor of St. Paul, is president and CEO of Project for Pride in Living, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit serving lower-income families and individuals through job training and by providing affordable housing. They also had standout athletic careers.