Monday, November 14, 2022

Mr. Bookmobile: Thompson Ellsworth Williams

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Known affectionately as Mr. Bookmobile for over thirty years, Thompson E. Williams not only drove the county’s first bookmobile, he shared his love of learning with generations of readers.

Thomas E. Williams, Chemung County's first bookmobile clerk and driver

Born in 1918 in Elmira to George and Helen Williams, Thompson came from a family who worked hard. His mother, Helen, raised the couple’s five children, worked at the department store Sheehan Dean & Co., and was active in many clubs and community organizations. His father, George, was a professional boxer who fought throughout the northeast under the name “Cyclone” Williams, competing in the lightweight division. Despite being recognized for his speed in the ring, he attributed to a higher power the fact that he had avoided visible scars or scrapes.

In the 1920s, George gave up boxing to pursue a different path. He threw himself into his studies, working odd jobs to support himself. He studied at Elmira Free Academy, Cook Academy in Montour Falls, and Berkley Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. One job he had was running a shoe shine business. It was located under the viaduct near Lake Street, and he often told people that his business had a million-dollar overhead. In 1929, he was ordained and became an AME Zion minister. Over the next few years he was appointed pastor at churches in Corning, Wellsville, and Waverly, NY, Meriden, CT, and Pittsburgh, PA.

Growing up, Thompson Williams was active in the Boy Scouts. He graduated from Elmira Free Academy in 1937, and next to his senior picture, the yearbook lists Howard University, where he intended to study.

EFA, Class of 1937

He didn’t end up going to Howard. After high school, he joined his mother to work at Sheehan Dean & Co. In 1944 he was drafted into the United States Army to fight in World War II.

Thompson trained at Fort Myers gunnery school and graduated in 1945. It was at a time when options were limited for Blacks in the military. Seeking better opportunities, Thompson joined the newly formed Tuskegee Airmen. The airmen were an elite all-Black squadron established in 1941 and the nation’s first Black military aviators. The airmen offered one of the few chances for Black soldiers to excel during harshly segregated times. Thompson did excel and achieved the rank of Corporal. Collectively, the Tuskegee airmen were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 2007 in recognition of their efforts during the war and leadership in integrating other branches of the U.S. military.

Honorably discharged, Thompson returned to Elmira. He coached the X-Cel Oilers basketball team from the Neighborhood House

Manager Williams at left
through an unbeaten season, and he worked for the Elmira Foundry Company. He also fell in love with the girl across the street, whose last name was the same as his first - Eva M. Thompson. They married in 1948.

Eva M. Thompson
1950 was a big year for Thompson and Eva Williams. They welcomed their first of seven children, and in December, Thompson was hired to be clerk and driver for Steele Memorial’s brand new $9,000 Bookmobile. He would hold the position he held for the next thirty-one years.

Mr. Bookmobile in action 
Chemung County had qualified for the first bookmobile under the State Aid for Libraries Law passed in June 1950. When it began, the bookmobile carried close to 3,000 books and delivered around 500 weekly. It served 21 rural communities, 65 schools, and 5 village stations.

In 1974, Thompson’s health forced him to scale back and he switched to driving a van for the library. Six years later, he died unexpectedly at 62 years old. It was one week before he had planned to retire.

In 1990, the Historical Society started collecting Black oral histories from people of Chemung County. We are fortunate that Thompson’s wife Eva Williams, was one who shared her story. (link to interview here) In her interview she talks about her husband, mentioning that he encouraged her to return to school to further her own studies, which she did. She talks about how he believed in education and sought out scholarships for his own children to go to college. He also encouraged Eva to vote, telling her that "it makes a difference in your job and in your community."

Thompson and Eva’s oldest child, Holly, who went on to be an educator, school administrator, and minister, remembers her father loved reading and always had a book with him. When asked what kinds of books her father read, Holly remembered that he liked books on early African civilizations and would share what he learned with his family.

Chemung County's first bookmobile, 1950s

Today the bookmobile continues to deliver books around the county. You can find current stops and times at

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