Mount Vernon News
  • Jon L. Williams

  • May 13, 2011

GAMBIER — Jon L. Williams, a family hero, dedicated professional, and village icon, leaves a legacy of kindness.

Jon, emeritus professor of psychology, died this week in his Gambier home, where he was found by a grandson on Wednesday afternoon, May 11, 2011. He was seventy-two years old.

His long record of academic achievement was matched by a high profile on Kenyon committees and a zeal for community service that stretched from roles as chairman of the Knox County Head Start Board to president of Gambier Little League Baseball. He joined the Kenyon faculty in January 1968 and retired in June 2004, after receiving an honorary doctor of science degree at that year’s commencement. He was a leading researcher into the biopsychological effects of stress, and he was a founder of the College Program in Neuroscience.

“Jon, to my way of thinking, was the perfect kind of Kenyon professor,” said Charles E. “Chuck” Rice, professor emeritus of psychology and a longtime friend and colleague. “He was the consummate professional, very well-recognized in his field, published in the most prestigious journals. And what was best for Kenyon is that he was just an absolutely dedicated teacher.”

Not flashy in the classroom, he was meticulous and methodical as a lecturer. “He was absolutely clear, absolutely organized,” Rice said. “The students came away and remembered what they learned. They got the essence of science as a mode of inquiry.”

From early in his career, he spent his summer days doing research, working with students on their projects — before the advent of the Summer Science Scholars program. “Those students were co-authors of major articles and they were published in journals,” Rice said.

One of those students was David Lopatto ’75, professor of psychology at Grinnell College. “His easy-going, collaborative style invited the student into psychology,” Lopatto said. “I found it pleasant to have out-of-class conversations about interesting questions in the discipline. Jon would turn the conversation toward how we could use experimental methodology to answer the questions. Before long, I was working in his animal lab on independent research.”

He was known to be kind and patient with his students while also pushing them to do their best work.

“I think my experience with Jon taught me to value inquiry-based learning and to love the liberal arts experience,” Lopatto said.

Jon will be remembered for his role in creating the Neuroscience Program, which was founded in 1993 and is growing in popularity. “He was very passionate about it,” said Hewlet G. McFarlane, associate professor of psychology and program director. McFarlane had planned to share with Jon a recent report on the program written for an external review. “We chatted about it Saturday,” McFarlane said. “I have a copy in my office for him. I’m looking at it right now. It’s very sad. This was kind of his baby. He made all this happen.”

Sarah Murnen, professor of psychology and department chair, recalled teaching research methods with Jon for many years. “He was very supportive of my efforts as a beginning teacher, and I learned a lot about how to involve students in research by watching Jon.

“He welcomed me and my family into his home on many occasions, and it was fun to temporarily be part of his friendly, energetic family.”

That family started on June 23, 1973, when he married Laurel “Lolly” Suman, who had six children. An only child and the son of only children, Jon embraced family life with gusto and adopted the children. “When my dad showed up on campus he had a sports car,” said his daughter, Robyn W. Shimrak ’86. “He traded in a red (Triumph) TR6 for a yellow Volkswagen bus. We laugh about that a lot. He liked all the action of the family. When we were growing up, he was involved with all the school meetings and Little League committees.

“My dad was a hero,” she said. “My dad changed our lives. He gave us all the opportunities that we might not have ever had without him. We were afforded amazing educations.”

Lolly Suman Williams was a social worker who graduated from Kenyon in 1984. She died of cancer on Feb. 24, 2005, a few months after Jon retired.

Jon enjoyed the steady company of family dogs, and he was often seen in recent times in the company of Jed, a labradoodle. “He was known as a lover of animals,” Murnen said, “and it was a joke in the ‘dog community’ that although he was a national expert on animal learning, he never trained his own dogs very well. He was simply too kind-hearted to appropriately correct the behaviors of the large, beautiful dogs he had befriended over the years.”

Affable if soft-spoken, he was a familiar patron at Gambier restaurants and “always willing to lend an ear,” Murnen said.

Jon earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Oberlin College in 1961, a master’s at Kent State University in 1963, and a doctorate at the University of Michigan in 1968. He was the first incumbent of the Samuel B. Cummings Jr. Chair in Psychology and served as the department chair and chair of the division. He was associate editor of The Psychological Record. Jon was coordinator of the Off-Campus Activities Program in Psychology, which channeled students into volunteer opportunities with local social-service organizations. He was a consultant for a number of local public school districts and served on the board of education for St. Vincent de Paul School in Mount Vernon. He was also a consultant for the Mount Vernon Youth Community Center and served on the board of Knox County Children Services.

An avid tennis player, Jon was a fan of Kenyon tennis and other Lords and Ladies teams. In a profile written for the College, Jon mentioned his interest in tennis, racquetball, art museums, family life, and “long walks with my dog.” Describing what he liked about teaching at Kenyon, he said, “Working with bright and motivated students in a beautiful setting.”

In addition to Robyn Shimrak, he is survived by Marc Suman Williams ’88, Lora Suman Williams Catalano, Lisa Suman Williams, Christopher Suman Williams, and 11 grandchildren. Assistant Athletic Director Amy Heasley Williams ’88 is married to Christopher Suman Williams. Another son, Jeffrey Suman Williams ’83, is deceased.

Friends may pay respects to the family at the Flower-Snyder Funeral Home, 619 E. High St., Mount Vernon, from 4 to 7 p.m. on Sunday. A funeral service will be conducted at 11 a.m. Monday at the Church of the Holy Spirit on the Kenyon campus, with Rev. Karl Stevens officiating. Burial will follow at Oak Grove Cemetery in Gambier.

The family asks that donations in Jon’s memory be sent to the Jeffrey S. Williams Memorial Award for Integrative Study in Psychology and Economics, Office of Development, Kenyon College, Gambier, OH 43022.

To send the family a private condolence online visit

The Flowers-Snyder Funeral Home is honored to have been chosen to serve the family of Jon L. Williams.

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