Former University Board Chair Neil Williams Dies (Updated)

Atlanta attorney was serving as chairman of The Duke Endowment

The Duke Endowment Chairman L. Neil Williams, center, died Sunday at age 76. In March 2011, he announced a $80 million gift for campus renovation at a news conference with Duke student Yi Zhang and Duke President Richard H. Brodhead. Photo by Duke Univ

Neil Williams, former chairman of the Duke board of trustees and current chair of The Duke Endowment, died Sunday.  He was 76. 

Williams died in Winston-Salem, where he was attending an event of The Duke Endowment.  Initial news reports indicated he suffered a heart attack.

A prominent figure in Atlanta legal and cultural circles, Williams had a long connection to Duke University, which he served in several capacities.

"Neil was a person of surpassing warmth and wisdom and a citizen of the very highest order," said Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead. "His services to Duke over more than 50 years -- including as board chair and chairman of The Duke Endowment -- have made a permanent mark on this university."

Raised in Charlotte, Williams came to Duke as an undergraduate in 1954.  He later told Duke Magazine he initially had a hard time deciding whether to pursue a career in music, building on his experience playing string bass in a symphony. He went on to sing in Duke's Symphony Chorus but decided to pursue a career in law instead. After graduating from Duke in 1958, he attended Duke School of Law and received his JD degree in 1961.  In 1965, he became a partner of Alston & Bird in Atlanta, becoming the firm's managing partner from 1984 to 1996.

During the 1970s, Williams was chair of the alumni association of Duke Law School and, later, of Duke University. For 13 years, through 1993, he was a member of Duke's board of trustees, which he chaired from 1983 to 1988. He was instrumental in the formation of Duke Management Company, the university's investment management arm, which he served as a director from its inception through 1997.

In January 2011, Williams became chair of The Duke Endowment, the Charlotte-based philanthropy James B. Duke established along with the university in 1924. In March 2011, Williams and other leaders of the Endowment announced an $80 million gift to transform three of the university's landmark buildings: West Union, Page Auditorium and Baldwin Auditorium.   

"The Duke Endowment and Duke University have a shared history and a shared vision," Williams said at the announcement ceremony. "Both want to make this campus the most vibrant, compelling place for the most talented and ambitious students and faculty."

Duke University awarded him its Distinguished Alumni Award in 1990.  The School of Law presented him in 1996 with the Charles Rhyne Award for outstanding achievement in the legal field.

Williams also was a civic leader in Atlanta.  At his death, he served as chairman of the board of trustees of the Vasser Woolley Foundation, as a trustee of Trinity Presbyterian Church and on the board of directors of three Atlanta-based firms. He also is the former board chairman of the Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta. In addition, Williams served on the board of the Brevard Music School and as president and director of the Atlanta Symphony.

A memorial service will be held at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, August 30th at Trinity Presbyterian Church, 3003 Howell Mill Road, NW in Atlanta. Memorial gifts may be sent to Duke Law School, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, or Trinity Presbyterian Church. Online condolences may be made through