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J. Reid Williamson remembered for protecting Savannah’s historic treasures

Reid Williamson was a man of many talents and accomplishments. The Connecticut native and Yale University graduate was a sportsman, a businessman and a veteran — serving his active duty at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, S.C., before joining the U.S. Air Force Reserves, the move that brought him to Savannah.

Williamson quickly made his mark on the city. He commanded the Georgia Air Guard’s 117th Tactical Control Squadron, retiring after 21 years with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel; worked for Great Dane Trailers and was assistant director of the Savannah District Authority, predecessor of the Savannah Economic Development Authority.

But those who knew him all agree Williamson’s greatest contribution to Savannah was in his role with the then-fledgling Historic Savannah Foundation.

“Reid was our first executive director, serving from 1966 to 1973, helping move the organization from all-volunteer to professional staff,” said Daniel Carey, HSF’s current president and CEO.

“That alone was significant, but he also set a high standard for others like me to follow,” he said. “His imprints are still on HSF today, especially through our revolving fund, which he took to the next level, making it a national model.”

Former HSF board president Graham Sadler agreed.

“Those were the pioneering days, the critical time when much of the amazing restoration work was being done in the central business district,” he said. “Reid and others like Lee Adler were really hands-on in saving lots of buildings from demolition and creating the atmosphere we enjoy now.

“They did a fantastic job, allowing the organization to stand on their shoulders and grow.”

Emma Adler and her late husband Lee were deeply involved from the beginning in Historic Savannah Foundation and the efforts to preserve the city’s architectural integrity.

The two were primarily responsible for recruiting Williamson to HSF.

“He was an absolutely wonderful person — he did so well wherever he went,” she said.

“Early on, there wasn’t a lot of support for historic preservation in Savannah. Most people had no idea what treasures existed beyond those dilapidated facades. But Reid knew, and he and made it his mission to save them.”

Savannah Realtor Susan Myers didn’t know Williamson well — she was just moving back to Savannah from London as he was moving to Indiana to take a new position with the Historic Landmarks Foundation in Indiana.

But Williamson left a legacy Myers knows well. She bought the house on Pulaski Square that he and his wife had painstakingly restored, living there for 40 years.

“To me, one of Reid’s biggest achievements was helping bring in the low-interest loan program for rehabbing historic homes,” she said.

Dale Critz Sr. remembers those days.

“Reid was the executive director when I came on the HSF board in 1968,” he said. “In those days, we had to buy buildings in order to save them. We had some $1.5 million in inventory and my main job in those first few years was to get these properties into the hands of people who would restore them. Having incentives was critical.

“Reid really was important for Savannah. We had a lot of very strong people in the organization with a lot of divergent opinions, but he was somehow able to keep everyone happy while, at the same time, advancing the organization.”

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