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.
Honorably discharged, Thompson returned to Elmira. He coached the X-Cel Oilers basketball team from the Neighborhood House
|Manager Williams at left|
|Eva M. Thompson|
|Mr. Bookmobile in action|
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 https://ccld.lib.ny.us/bookmobile/