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Fulfilling a dream

A husband honors his late wife by creating a scholarship at the University of Utah College of Social Work.

Robin Arnold-Williams was organized, hard-working and ethical. She was a woman with a vision. She played a critical role in the administrations of two governors and helped thousands of people through her policy work.

Robin Arnold-Williams

Arnold-Williams was also dedicated to social work—as an educator and as a professional. She earned both master’s and doctoral degrees in social work from the University of Utah. Consequently, her husband, John Williams, was not surprised that her long-term plans included establishing a social work scholarship through an estate gift—the estate the couple anticipated would be hers to distribute as the surviving spouse in their marriage.

But life does not always go as planned. When Arnold-Williams died in 2017, Williams was unexpectedly faced with the loss, his wife’s vision and an estate that was solely his to distribute. Williams took time to assess these circumstances and ultimately took his cue from his shared life with his late wife. He decided to fulfill her dream of creating a scholarship at the U’s College of Social Work. 

“It was an interesting relationship we had,” said Williams. “I knew from the start how much Robin’s career meant to her and how much she loved being in the public service field. It was an understanding that wherever the jobs came up for her, that’s where we would go.”  

Williams recalled how Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire always laughed when recounting his wife’s call to him after she accepted the position of secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services in the governor’s cabinet.

Without preamble, Williams said she exclaimed, “We’re moving to Washington!”

“Robin knew that if it was what she wanted to do, I would do it without hesitation,” said Williams. “I got a lot of satisfaction supporting her dreams and her career.”

Robin Arnold-Williams’ husband John Williams

The scholarship is a way for Williams to follow Arnold-Williams’ lead one more time and fulfill this dream for her.

While he credits Arnold-Williams with the vision, Williams is quick to recognize former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt and the Leavitt Partners Inc. employee support program, as well as family, friends, colleagues and classmates for their generous contributions. Their collective generosity enabled the scholarship to be initiated and grow quickly enough to be awarded within one year—an exciting and heartwarming legacy to Arnold-Williams.

Among these classmates is Marghi Barton (MSW ’80). Barton recalls Arnold-Williams as humble, gracious, always prepared for class and game for any Utah activity from rafting to skiing. After running through a long list of adjectives and activities connected to Arnold-Williams, Barton paused.  

“You know, I don’t think Robin and I ever had a class together,” she said.  

But Arnold-Williams was always there, ready to participate, to support and to encourage.  

“Robin had a good sense of work-life balance,” said Barton. “She was also instilled with a strong sense of independence.”  

Arnold-Williams’ mother was a single parent who chopped wood to keep the fires burning during cold Michigan winters. Arnold-Williams worked hard for all she achieved, didn’t take opportunities for granted and set the bar high for those who worked with her.  

“She was a role model for many and a steady force behind so many people and projects,” said Barton.

For Barton, the scholarship is a way to encourage students to be like Arnold-Williams. It’s a way for students to be inspired by her career in macro social work. Speaking as a clinical social worker, Barton said there is value in one-on-one, but policy leads to big differences.

“One sweeping change can have a broad impact and there’s no better time,” said Barton.

Williams also sees the scholarship as a continuation of Arnold-Williams’ work. He recalled that someone once asked her how she could possibly do the work she did for so many years given all the bad things that happen in social services. His wife’s answer stuck with him.  

“She said, ‘All populations seem to have problems. If there weren’t people in the world who had problems and needed help, there wouldn’t be a Department of Human Services and I wouldn’t have had a chance to work with people who needed help,’” said Williams.  

Those who knew her said Arnold-Williams understood that if you gave people the right help and did it in a caring and loving way, you could really make a difference in their lives.  

“She wasn’t out to make a fortune or get famous,” said Williams. “She was just there to make a difference to people’s lives.”  

Williams said Arnold-Williams truly wanted to pass that passion on and to find others who wanted to do this, too. He feels good about following through with the scholarship as Arnold-Williams wanted.  

“The wonderful thing is I actually get to see the scholarship established and meet the scholars,” said Williams. “That was never in the cards as a final estate distribution. With that, it has become our scholarship now.”