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Master machinist Don Williams retires after 50 years at Ohio State

With the calmness and wisdom that comes from many years of adventure and Don and FrankDon Williams (right) with his longtime friend and coworker, Frank Ohlemacherexperience, Don Williams has brought his knowledge of cars and machines to The Ohio State University for over 50 years. His final day will be Tuesday, October 31, followed by a well-deserved second retirement.

Williams has worked at the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) as the lead design engineer beginning in 2000. Here, Williams helps students and researchers learn to use the metalworking machines and to design better parts for experiments or motorsports vehicles.

Frank Ohlemacher, the facility manager at CAR, has worked with Williams since 2000. “Don has worked with many international students over the years, and under his direction, he has helped them refine their designs,” Ohlemacher said. “Don is truly a problem solver!”

“Don is a master machinist; he has fabricated precision parts using worn out equipment that is older than Methuselah,” joked Ohlemacher.

Don Williams' Early Life
Williams grew up in northeastern Columbus in a neighborhood called Linden, and he graduated from Linden McKinley High School in 1963. He has a brother, a sister and -- back then -- a strong penchant for trouble, especially when it came to driving to school.

His family built a cabin in Canada where everyone would spend the summers; his dad would even pull them out of school early and send them back late to get as much time there as possible. The heat for the cabin came from a wood-burning stove, so Williams had to go out early and chop wood for the fire. Williams’ adventures started at the cabin as he and his friends scared black bears, caught rattle snakes with their bare hands and did tricks on their water skis.

Williams married his first wife when he was 21, and he started working as a machinist for Ohio State a couple years later in 1967, working for the Physical Facilities department (now called Facilities Operations and Development). Together, they raised a daughter and a son, but due to unforeseen hospital bills, Williams needed to pick up a second job for several years. He worked at Cream Cone, a manufacturing company that made the machines for ice cream cones, and he built a stand-alone garage at his house so he could repair cars for a nearby used car lot.

Building Winning Vehicles
The stand-alone garage was Williams' workshop, and it was solely for cars; it had jack stands and all the tools he would need. He built another shed for “normal” garage items like the lawn mower and garden tools. “The garage had AC and insulation because, you know, I had to work there,” Williams said. This allowed him to develop his own hobby of fixing up Corvettes for fun, including an all-stock 1962 Corvette with a faulty brake line, a 1961 Corvette that he painted black and reupholstered red and a 1965 Corvette that he drove back from Maryland with a handbrake as his only brake.

Williams also started fixing cars for his friends. “Don helped me build my 1964 GTO,” recalled Ohlemacher. “There is nothing he doesn’t know about cars and engines. Don used to build race cars, [and he even cut] a corvette in half and creat[ed] a corvette station wagon, just because he could.”

Sometimes Williams and his friends would travel across Ohio for car shows, and he especially enjoyed building a car from scratch for a show in Canal Winchester, meeting every element of the show’s rule book. The car ended up winning Best of Show, Car Owners’ Choice, People’s Choice and several other awards. Many of Williams’ cars have been featured in magazines, calendars and museums, and the corvette-station wagon even made it into the background of a movie.

Abounding Adventures
In addition to building cars, Williams also loves traveling and scuba diving. Inspired by a snorkeling trip in the Caribbean, he started scuba lessons when he was 34. He completed his certification in Hawaii, where he swam with sharks and through lava tubes. In Columbus, he used his scuba certification to help train Search and Rescue dogs in Alum Creek.

Williams has also enjoyed traveling to New Orleans, Louisiana, to celebrate both his birthday, October 30, and Halloween since the voodoo influence led to some great parties. Concerts; Caribbean sailboat tours; trips to Las Vegas, Nevada; and biking down a volcano in Hawaii were also some of Williams’ favorite adventures.

Working at Ohio State
As Williams was building cars and going on adventures, he was also climbing the ranks to become the building maintenance superintendent for Physical Facilities. His career survived the riots of the 1970s, where he led National Guard members through Ohio State’s underground tunnels, and his team even installed the fountain pump in Mirror Lake that still spouts water 50+ feet in the air.

However, in the early 1990s, Williams decided he wanted a career change. “I saw a Mechanical Engineering job posting,” he said, “to get student projects rolling better. So I got hired, and I worked with the student motorsports teams -- the formula SAE, formula Baja, a natural gas truck and the Lightning electric race car.”

The student projects were housed at CAR, which, at the time, was newly established at 1099 Kinnear Road. Williams assisted many students with their projects while also developing his machining skills, and he stayed with the student projects through CAR’s move to its current location at 930 Kinnear Road, at least until the late ‘90s when project support began to slow. He then partnered with the radiology department at a local hospital to create a bed that could withstand the high-powered magnets within a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. After that project ended, Williams decided to retire for the first time.

In the six months after his retirement, Williams moved to a quiet, gated community with his second wife and had his fill of fishing and golfing with his friends at the many golf courses in the Columbus area. “My second wife worked from home, though,” said Williams. “So she told me I needed to find something to do outside of the house, and I went back to CAR as soon as my six months were up (that I had to be away from the university following retirement). I didn’t work with student projects anymore; I just did work for CAR.”

Formula Lightning Team-1994Williams (back row, second from right) with the inaugural Formula Lightning Race team after their win in 1994

Reflecting on Times at CAR
When Williams came back to CAR, Professor Giorgio Rizzoni had become the new director, and Williams said, “Giorgio brought CAR back. He changed the attitude here, and things started to pick up right away.”

After being at the university for 50 years, it’s hard to pick out just one thing to remember, but Williams likes remembering the “successful projects”! He enjoyed going out to the Bonneville Salt Flats, heading to Michigan for the formula races, and going to Maryland with the Formula Lightning electric car as just a few examples. “There was the Lightning race that was broadcast live on television,” Williams recalled, “and a big thunderstorm rolled in right after the race. Everyone had to run for cover!”

“Like most people you ask, my favorite part is the people. Frank, Giorgio, the students -- without them, I’d have left a long time ago,” said Williams. “Working here is staying busy; it’s fun. Being here -- it’s a helluva lot more than a job.”

Retirement Plans
After retiring, Williams plans to continue coming into CAR for Thursday lunches with his friends. He may also get to spend some time with his four grandchildren and their families. “I’ll also hit the gym about three times a week,” he said. “I want to go scuba diving some more in the Caribbean, so I need to get back in shape!”

Williams will, of course, continue repairing and enhancing cars; his current project is a gray 1928 Ford hot rod. He has already fixed up the engine and added delicate pinstriping to the sides and hood. “I’m going to buy a sewing machine. Then I’ll make my own red pleather or vinyl interior... It’ll be my first time redoing the interior myself,” Williams said. He also wants to turn the bench seats into bucket seats and install maple floor panels to match the red of the interior.

CAR won’t be the same without this adventurous master machinist, so be sure to stop by the shop and wish him a happy retirement!

By Cassie Theobald, CAR Writing Intern