By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
Although outgoing Urban League President Bernett Williams' new job is less than a mile away, about 200 people gave her their best wishes on her short journey Wednesday afternoon.
Her staff and board expressed mixed feelings at the farewell reception about losing Williams, who will become the vice president of external relations at Akron Children's Hospital a newly created position next month.
''It will be nearly impossible to fill her shoes with someone of equal talent, experience and her enthusiasm,'' said Robert Harrigan, Akron Urban League board chairman.
But government leaders expressed gratitude that Williams, who has worked for the Urban League since 1996, is staying in town.
Mayor Don Plusquellic said Williams' name topped the list of talented young community leaders he hoped would not be
enticed to advance their careers elsewhere.
''We get to keep Bernett here helping in the same way that she helped people here at the Urban League, and I can't think not only as mayor of Akron but as a resident of anything better than that.''
Williams started her career with the Akron Urban League at the age of 29 as director of programs. The top job opened late in 1996 with the resignation of Stephen Pressley.
Williams wasn't named executive director until 1998, when she received official approval from her national and local leadership.
''The first reaction from the national Urban League, if you'll recall, was that she didn't fit the paradigm for the Urban League leadership,'' state Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, said. ''And this community rose up and said, 'You can't put leadership on a resume. You can't put spirit, you can't put imagination, you can't put work ethic onto a resume.'
''And what was originally a rejection of that candidacy was turned around.''
The National Urban League gave Williams the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award for Advancing Racial Equality at its 2008 convention.
Williams might be most remembered for leading a $5 million fundraising campaign to move the headquarters from East Market Street to a new building at 440 Vernon Odom Blvd., adjacent to the new Helen Arnold elementary school.
The complex, which opened in 2007, became the centerpiece of a renaissance for the near-westside Akron neighborhood in Ward 3 that includes new affordable housing, a revitalized Akron Zoo, a sports complex and an expanded branch library.
Marco Sommerville, Ward 3 councilman and council president, expressed his gratitude Wednesday to Williams for making the move.
''You have changed this neighborhood,'' Sommerville said. ''You have changed this city. You have made a difference in so many people's lives.''
Williams also was recognized for forging a partnership with the Connect Your Community Project to expand computer use and access to high-speed Internet services among poor households.
The $2 million federal stimulus grant for the project is the largest in agency history.
The computer training began in September and runs through May 2012. Akron is one of eight Ohio communities to share in the $18.7 million federal grant.
So far, 741 people have registered for a class in Akron, 324 have completed training and received a computer, and 225 say they have Internet access in their homes.
The agency hopes to provide training and support for 3,500 Summit County residents over the next two years.
Computer and Internet access is essential for low-income people, because employers expect job applicants to have e-mail and the ability to send a resume electronically. Interactions with schools and health-care providers increasingly depend on Internet and computer access.
One man with a disability wanted to participate, but couldn't leave his home, Williams said. Her staff devised a way to help him with Skype, the popular Internet phone service.
''They figured out how to put Skype into his home, so he's getting the benefit of the CYC program,'' Williams said.
The federal grant was especially welcome because of declines in fundraising, largely because of the recession.
Contributions and grants to the Urban League dropped more than 18 percent in 2008 and 2009 from the inflation-adjusted average $2,073,535 for 2000-07.
Williams said she will start her new job Feb. 14. The board will run the agency until her replacement is chosen in a national search. Williams makes about $112,000 a year in base salary.
''The search is under way, so we're expecting to have the formal replacement named in early May,'' she said.
Williams told the crowd at her reception that nobody ever really leaves the Urban League.
''I have received far more from the Akron Urban League than I can ever give,'' she said. ''I will always support the Urban League, because once an Urban Leaguer, always an Urban Leaguer.''