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Humans of the Hilltop: John Williams

John Williams, history professor, shares his passion for both German culture and film with each class he teaches.
photo via John Williams

History professor John Williams may have been born in the western mountains of North Carolina, but his lifelong passion has always been cemented in German culture and history.

According to Williams, the relative comparability between the dark past of the southern United States and Germany is what drives his interest in the culture.

“As a Southerner and someone who thought historically because of my influences from my parents and so forth, I was interested in the burden of history,” Williams said. “If there’s a crime in the past of a region or country that is really important, it continues to haunt that region or country. Coming from the South, of course, the crime is obvious. I think that made me more curious about another place that had a horrible crime in its past.”

Williams also said his interest in Germany stemmed from being introduced to the German language at a young age.

“I remember when I was in fourth grade or something, our teacher decided to teach us to count from one to 10 in four different languages,” Williams said. “For some reason, I could remember the German better than any other languages. I really liked [it] and found that language really cool.”

Following graduation the University of North Carolina, Williams traveled to Germany. While the trip was not intended to last long, Williams ended up living in Germany for three years because he was given an opportunity to work in film. At the time, Williams said it was something he wanted to make a career out of.

“When I went to Munich, there’s a big studio there, it’s the Bavaria Film Studio,” Williams said. “I worked on two movies there that were big Hollywood productions being shot in Germany and being post-produced in Germany. One was called ‘Enemy Mine’ with Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett … the other was ‘The Name of the Rose,’ which was a kind of famous novel about the Middle Ages, and it had Sean Connery and a bunch of good people in it.”

Williams said his role in the filmmaking process was in sound editing.

“I was not on the sets, I was in post-production at that studio,” Williams said. “At all the post-production studios I was working on, sound editing as an assistant.”

While Williams said he ultimately abandoned his goal of turning film into a career, he said that background is crucial to the way he integrates film into the classroom.

“I’ve started teaching film a lot more in my classes,” Williams said. “This semester, all three of my classes, plus an honors seminar, are heavily focused on film.”

Williams also said he is working with film professor Steve Warner to develop a film studies minor at Bradley.

“[Warner] and I are both involved, as well as some other people in theater and in [Liberal Arts and Sciences] in putting together a film studies minor,” Williams said. “Hopefully that will get off the ground in the next year or so, we’re hoping.”

In a message to students, Williams said he encourages students to follow their passion when it comes to planning for their future.

“Be yourself,” Williams said. “Go with what rocks your boat. You need to be happy with your work life.”

Williams also recommended that anyone who has the opportunity to travel to Germany should take advantage of it because of what can be learned from the culture of the German people.

“[Germans] are people who have built up a very strong and robust democracy despite all the problems they’ve been through in the 20th century, despite the many failed political experiments and the two wars that nearly destroyed the country in which they were compromised by the crimes of their leaders,” Williams said. “They have developed a very mature understanding of democracy, possibly even more than we have. I think that’s inspiring and interesting to go check out.”

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