Joe Williams, Jr. didn’t plan on attending college until he was encouraged by the leader of his village corporation to apply to Alaska Methodist University (AMU) — later Alaska Pacific University. Although he applied late and hadn’t been accepted by the start of his first semester, he showed up and lived on campus anyway! From this inauspicious beginning, Joe would continue on to do great things for the University.
Joe was born and raised in Saxman, Alaska. He is of Tlingit descent and is part of the Eagle Tribe within the Tlingit Tribe. He graduated from Ketchikan High School in 1963. As a student at AMU, Joe was involved with the Alaska Native Student Organization and, in 1973, he advocated and received funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Juneau to start up the very first Native Emphasis Week (NEW) with the catchphrase “What’s NEW at AMU?” The week included food, dancing, singing, and storytelling from multiple different cultures across the state of Alaska. At the end of the week, a potlatch was held that was open to the public. The first year, about 300 people gathered in Rasmuson Hall at the Atwood Center. As this event continued on, more and more people attended and more funding was provided. The second year, NEW was promoted via fliers, phone calls, newspapers, and word of mouth, and 600-800 people attended. The Anchorage Museum even loaned artifacts from their Alaska culture exhibit to show! In its third year, the NEW potlatch attracted approximately 1,200 guests. One of Joe’s wishes for APU is that current students will bring this event back to life.
Joe was also a student representative on the AMU Board of Trustees during the transition from AMU to APU, a period when the university closed for a full year. At this point, Joe thought his schooling had come to an end, but a few years later in 1978, he returned to finish his remaining coursework. Joe finally earned his degree after completing 41 credits in a single year while working a full-time job. He was also the very first graduate of APU with a bachelor’s degree in business. One of his favorite memories during his time on campus was when he and a few of his friends decided to get a little too close to a moose on campus and had to run back to the dorms in Gould Hall through loud, crunchy snow.
After earning his degree, Joe went on to become the first Tlingit Alaska Native to be elected as Mayor of Ketchikan Gateway Borough. He also served as mayor of the City of Saxman, making him the first elected official in Alaska to serve as mayor of both a city and a borough. Joe has also served in many other leadership roles, including 12 years as Tribal President for Saxman IRA, eight years as Vice President of the National Congress of American Indian, 12 years as a council member for the City of Saxman, and six years representing Saxman on the Board of Directors for Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority. Currently, Joe sits on the Elders Council and Board of Trustees at APU.
Joe’s advice for students that are currently attending APU? “Attend your classes, first and foremost. Second, be prepared. Do your homework. Third, find somebody in your ethnic group that can be your mentor about culture. Learn the language, learn the songs, and learn the dances. When they get to be (my) age (76), they will be able to speak about finishing college, and speak the language of a college student, and speak the language of their forefathers, and tell their stories.”