O M Gee!

By on March 12, 2014

William “Gee” Williams, III has been mayor of Berlin, Md., since 2008. Recently, the town was voted as “America’s Coolest Small Town” in a Budget Travel poll, but success hasn’t gone to his head.

He recently opened up to this Record Express reporter, sharing information about himself and his thoughts on what makes Berlin such a cool town. We bonded right away when Gee told me what he used to do for a living.

“Before I was Mayor,” Williams divulged in our initial contact e-mail, “I was the editor of our community’s weekly newspaper for 30 years.”

If this wasn’t exciting enough, he also told me that he’d been to Lititz and loved it.

“About five years ago my wife and I and another couple from the Berlin area spent a week in Lititz for a summer break during the Fourth of July,” Williams said. “We stayed at the General Sutter Inn, enjoyed the best July 4th parade ever and tried to sample all the great things to eat, including of course many delights from the Wilbur Chocolate Company. We knew Lititz was uncommonly ‘cool’ then and are looking forward to a return visit, especially after having both of our towns receive this special, and I believe very appropriate, honor. It feels just right, don’t you think?”

We certainly do. But there was still plenty to learn about Gee Williams and his town. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: Your nickname, “Gee,” is pretty cool. What’s the story with that?
A: Here’s the short version. For over 100 years, there have been a continuous line of grandfathers, fathers and grandsons in my family who were named William G. Williams, Sr.; William G. Williams, Jr., and William G. Williams, III. Most had a variety of nicknames to make it easier who was who in conversations, etc. My grandfather was called Bill, my father Billy and I started out as W.G. (a popular custom to this day in the deep south), but wouldn’t you know it, because of a typographical error in the Eastern Shore Times when I was age 12 with my photo on the front page, the caption read: Gee Williams. The name stuck right away and I was smart enough to realize that if that is what the town newspaper said my name was, then I might as well get used to it! My wife and I have one wonderful daughter, so there is no W.G., Sr., but my grandson’s first name is William. Naturally, he is known by his nickname, “Wil.”

Q: You mentioned that you were a newspaper editor for 30 year. What was the name of the paper you edited in Berlin?
A: The Eastern Shore Times. The paper was established in the early 1920’s and continued under the same banner until early in the 21st Century when it was purchased by Gannett Publications and the name changed to the Worcester County Times. I was employed as the editor from 1971 until 1999. When I started I was the editor, reporter, photographer and delivered the paper to newsstands every Thursday. So, I started at either the top, or the bottom, depending on how you look at it.

Q: How long have you lived in Berlin?
A: I am age 65. I have lived in Berlin for most of my life except for the four years I attended the University of Maryland, College Park, Class of 1971 and three years immediately after graduation when my wife and I lived in her hometown, seven miles to the east, the classic beach resort of Ocean City, Maryland. I also served in the US Army Reserve from 1971-77, but our unit was never activated for Vietnam because collectively we just couldn’t shoot straight.

Q: What other political offices have you served in Berlin or elsewhere?
A: I was first elected mayor in October 2008. I am currently in my second four-year term. From 2003 until spring 2008 I was the council vice-president. I had this most unusual opportunity as the result of the unfortunate and unexpected passing of our previous mayor, who died in his sleep in May 2008, five months prior to our next town election. The Town Charter required I become mayor (or resign and have a special election) so I gave the job a test drive and have not regretted the decision to run for election ever since.

Prior to being elected to our town council, I was the vice-chair and later chair of the Democratic Party Central Committee of Worcester County (1972-1980) and was elected to represent our congressional district as a delegate to the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago when President Bill Clinton was running for a second term. My family has been in Democratic Party politics since the time FDR was president, but I was brought up to put partisan politics aside the day after an election. In my family, when someone needs your help, we never ask them what party they are affiliated with because it doesn’t matter, we’re all Americans first. (Please tell those folks in Washington, DC how well this works).

Q: How else have you served the Berlin community?
A: I have been extremely fortunate to serve Berlin through many civic organizations and initiatives. In 1988, at the young age of 40, I was privileged to receive the “Berlin Outstanding Citizen Award,” an annual award which soon will approach its 50th year. It does not include recognition for any service which is political in nature. Let’s just say that I have had the good fortune to make a contribution to many aspects of our community, and ironically, even more since 1988, than before.

Q: What was your reaction to Berlin being chosen as “America’s Coolest Small Town?”
A: Surprise, Appreciation, Gratitude! I must admit that I and everyone I have communicated with since the announcement are absolutely delighted. What makes this honor especially special is that it resulted from an unbelievable outpouring of pride and friendship from so many people well beyond the borders of our town or state. The 2010 census says we have 4,496 residents, but apparently the “Family of Berlin,” as you folks in Lititz understand, is much larger.

Q; What’s one place in town you’d tell a first-time visitor to see?
A: Simply, a walk down Main Street. Regardless of your age or mobility (the town and the state have spared no expense in making sure every sidewalk and crosswalk is ADA compliant) I sincerely believe you will immediately experience what generations have worked to accomplish, which is to have you enjoy a community that prides itself in 19th Century Charm, but 21st Century Living. You may feel like you’re walking through a time where visually it is 100 years ago, but culturally, politically and in all forms of communications (free downtown Wi-Fi, etc.) we are on the cutting edge of the digital age.

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Community events that fill a downtown, such as Berlin’s annual Fiddlers Convention, are a big part of what makes a small town a “cool town.”

Q: Where in Berlin would you take that special someone for a date?
A: Although my wife and I have been married 45 years, and started going steady in high school, almost 50 years ago, we both stay so busy that we’re still dating! We enjoy a date night as often as possible so this question is relatively easy. When we want to dress-up in casual formal attire we go to the café in the circa 1895 Atlantic Hotel; when we want to feel like we are young again, we go to The Globe Restaurant and Bar; and when we want to enjoy relaxing conversation and good wine we go to the Maryland Wine Bar, exclusively featuring wines from vineyards throughout the state of Maryland.

Q: Where’s your favorite spot for breakfast in Berlin?
A: Two places actually: The Berlin Coffee House for a continental style breakfast and a great variety of brewed coffees, and Rayne’s Reef Cafe for all the classic American breakfast treats.

Q: What’s the coolest thing that happened in Berlin last year?
A: Our Berlin Little League team won both the Maryland State Championship and they were the runner-up in the Eastern Regional Championship, falling one win short of going to the final round of national competition at Williamsport, Pa. The only thing that exceeded their skills on the baseball field was there absolute commitment to being gracious in both victory or defeat &tstr; true American sportsmen! I believe that among them will be some of the future leaders of our community.

Q: What annual events make Berlin cool?
A: Just like Lititz, we host 2nd Friday Art Strolls throughout the year and they are growing in popularity as each takes on a theme of its own. We are an Maryland Arts and Entertainment designated Community, but we not only support the traditional arts, but have a whimsical attitude that includes annual bath tub races on Main Street where each entry must be artistically inspired, and a Fiddler’s Convention that we combine with a plein air arts competition. We have a Jazz and Blues Festival, May Day Play-Day, High Heel Races for women (and men!) and Shakespeare on Main Street Theater. High brow or not, if it’s art inspired by fun, it feels just right for us.

Q: What’s the best time of year to visit Berlin?
A: Personally, I would recommend the warmer weather months from early April through late October, but our peak season for guests is during Victorian Christmas which begins with our annual tree lighting festivities the Friday after Thanksgiving and continues with much fun and merriment right up through our annual New Year’s Eve Main Street Ball Drop and Party. (Think Times Square in New York, but with lots more fun!)

Q: What is the most un-cool thing about Berlin?
A: It is a paradox that the most un-cool thing about our community is the foundation upon which generations built on up to make Berlin the place it is to the present day.
Our town started in the 18th Century as a very successful traditional southern plantation named the Burleigh Plantation. The plantation’s Burleigh Inn quickly became one of the most popular overnight accommodations for travelers and drummers (traveling salesmen) from as far north as Philadelphia. The named evolved into the Burley Inn soon became more well-known then the plantation it served before the Civil War. Ironically, because Eastern Shoremen (as we identify ourselves) historically had a distinct southern accent, Burley Inn, came to be called “Bur-lin,” but sometime during the post civil war the name was regularly misspelled by city map makers as “Berlin.”

During World War II, most people started pronouncing our name the same as Berlin, the capital of Germany. In the 21st Century, now that we have a very successful award winning brewery that opened in 2011, many younger people pronounce the town’s name as “Beer-lin.” We really don’t mind how you say our name, as long as you say it with affection or friendship. Can’t imagine anyone ever mispronouncing, “Lititz!”

Q: What else do you remember about your visit to Lititz?
A: We visited your beautiful park more than once, shopped till we dropped, but the most lasting memory is the gracious welcome we received literally every place we visited. We will be back!

Q: In what ways is Berlin like Lititz? How do they differ?
A: Both have revitalized and preserved our architectural heritage. Just shows that being old can be cool, if you just take good care of yourself. From my brief experience, I believe we share a basic philosophy that bigger is not always better. We both strive to seek quality over quantity in all things.

Our differences may be a result of the roots of our early settlers. Lititz is in the heart of Amish Country Culture. Friendly, forthright and pragmatic are traits that I believe describe my impression of Lititz and Lancaster County in general. Berlin has southern roots, but modern day Berlin is greatly influenced by the beach culture that predominates from our proximity to Maryland’s major summer resort, Ocean City, just seven miles to the east. Basketball, baseball, lacrosse and football and fishing are all popular, but the sport that dominates our local culture is surfing.

Possibly the most striking difference is that after all Berlin has had to overcome from the Civil War, and three-quarters of a century recovery from the Great Depression, despite all the adversity, we are a community that will party almost anytime at the drop of a hat. We host 30 events a year, all free admission, and we invite you all to drop by and be our guests and judge for yourself if we are in the same league of “coolness” as Lititz, my favorite Pennsylvania town.

To learn more about Berlin, Md., visit berlinmd.gov.

Melissa Hunnefield is a staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. She welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at mhunnefield.eph@lnpnews.com or at 721-4452.

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