Sophie Williams

Nurse, mother, advocate for the developmentally disabled

Claremont Manor resident Sophie Williams died on November 13, 2014 at age 93.

Born Sophie Lucille Kurowski in 1921 in Chicago, Illinois, she was the oldest of two children born to Roman and Stella Kurowski, both immigrants from Poland. Throughout the Great Depression, the family lived in a small one-bedroom apartment behind Roman Kurowski’s shoe store in the Jefferson Park neighborhood. 

Mrs. Williams graduated from Carl Schurz High School in Chicago in 1939 and then attended Cook County School of Nursing from which she graduated in 1943. She worked at Cook County Hospital as a ward instructor for one year before joining the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in 1944. Mrs. Williams served as an army nurse stationed on the island of Okinawa from 1944 to 1946. 

Mrs. Williams’ military service marked a profound turning point for the girl from Jefferson Park Chicago. Having fallen in love with the west coast when shipping out to the Pacific, Mrs. Williams returned to the San Francisco Bay area following her discharge from the army in 1946 and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley on the GI Bill. There, she earned a bachelor of science degree and a teaching credential in 1948. She then took her first job as an instructor of nursing at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco.

It was during this time that Mrs. Williams met and married her beloved husband of 56 years, Edwin Williams, an engineer and fellow UC Berkeley graduate. Their courtship included international folk dancing and outings with the Berkeley Hiking Club. The couple lived in San Francisco until the birth of their second child, which prompted a move to the suburban community of Burlingame.

In 1960, the family, which now included four children, relocated to southern California when Mr. Williams took a job as a professor of mechanical engineering at the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in Pomona. The family settled in the community of Covina, where they remained for 33 years. 

Mrs. Williams left the nursing profession and became a full-time mother to her four children. She was a tireless advocate for her developmentally disabled second child, Vernon Williams, and devoted herself to seeking out, and in many cases creating, the resources needed for his educational and vocational development. Not content to advocate on behalf of her child alone, Mrs. Williams worked on behalf of all children with special education needs in the community.

To this end, Mrs. Williams helped to found the California Advocates for Neurologically Handicapped Children (CANHC), set up a scholarship fund for developmentally disabled high school graduates within the Charter Oak Scholarship Foundation and assisted in establishing a recreational bowling league for developmentally disabled adults. All of these institutions still exist today.

In the midst of all this activity, Mrs. Williams also found time to teach Sunday school, participate in the PTA and volunteer on local and national political campaigns throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In later life, she and Mr. Williams became active in the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) following the long illness and suicide of their third child, Skyler Williams. 

Mr. and Mrs. Williams moved to Claremont in 1993 and to the Claremont Manor in 2004. They were members of the Claremont United Church of Christ. Mrs. Williams remained intellectually active and interested in the goings-on of the world her entire life.  Even when health problems kept her confined to her apartment, she could always be found absorbed in a book or periodical and ready to discuss her insights and opinions with visitors.

Mrs. Williams is survived by three of her children, sons Neal Williams of Santa Monica and Vernon Williams of Alhambra, and by her daughter Prentiss Williams of Oakland.  She was preceded in death by her husband Edwin, her brother Ted and her son Skyler. 

A memorial service for Mrs. Williams will be held at 2 p.m. on January 10, 2015 at Claremont Manor, 650 W. Harrison Ave., Claremont.

In lieu of flowers, anyone wishing to honor the memory of Sophie Williams is encouraged by the family to donate to the National Alliance on Mental Illness at www.namicalifornia.org.

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