In Ty’s Place

Dayton Williams

SGT Tyrell Seth Williams, USMC during his active duty service
Photos: Courtesy of Dayton Williams

For almost a decade, Dayton Williams searched in vain for a way to honor her son’s memory. Then she got an idea.

When Dayton Williams entered her son Ty’s house, it was clean. Everything was organized. It was the house of someone who had his act together.

As with many young people, it was the military that had given him this precious gift. It was the Marines that took a young man who struggled in school, struggled to find a direction, and gave him the discipline to achieve his goals.

Ty had started college in Oklahoma but without direction or commitment eventually dropped out. At age 26, “Tyrell was, in many ways, lost,” his mother recalls. He went to a Navy recruitment office, most likely because his grandfather was a Navy veteran, but that office was closed at the moment, so the Marines got him. He told no one he was going to enlist.

Dayton Williams
Tyrell’s grandfather, Ed Davis, a Navy veteran, and Ed’s wife, JoAnne, welcome Tyrell home after his second tour of duty.

His entire military service was overseas — three tours in Iraq.

In November 2007, four and a half years of wrenching worry came to a merciful end when Ty finally came home, honorably discharged as a sergeant. At last she had a chance to get to know her older son again, and it was a bit like getting to know someone new. He was 31 now, focused and grounded. “I witnessed the man my son had become,” she says. And one of the things he was focused on was getting the college degree that had eluded him in his early 20s. He wanted to come to The University of Texas at Austin and study psychology.

On February 11, 2008, Tyrell was gearing up to do just that when he was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Austin.

The depth of Dayton’s grief was something only one who has suffered the loss of a child could understand. To survive, she had to break her life apart and put it back together in a different configuration. She moved from Bryan to Galveston back to Bryan and then to Fort Worth. She took early retirement from her long career as a senior project manager for IBM and became a life coach. She devoted herself to nonprofit causes that felt more impactful, became a FEMA Reservist and began helping other bereaved mothers. “My entire inner and outer world shattered into a thousand pieces, and I had to put myself back together. Who am I? What’s important? What’s of value? Service to humanity — that’s what I value. I loved my profession, but it became meaningless in contrast to the loss of my son.”

Concurrent with all those life changes, for nine years she struggled to find a way to honor Ty. Her emails to other universities where she wanted to explore memorials went unanswered. The gears of other nonprofit organizations she tried to support in his honor would not turn. Then, she had an idea.

Ty loved Austin and had planned to be a Longhorn. “This was just the school he knew in his heart he wanted to be at.” What if she honored him by enabling another returning veteran to, in a sense, take Ty’s place at the university? One email later she was on her way to setting up an endowment. “I am crying,” she remembers. “I am thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. This is it. This is beautiful!’”

Dayton Williams

“What if she honored him by enabling another returning veteran to, in a sense, take Ty’s place at the university?”

Aundre Wesley, first recipient of the scholarship inspired by Tyrell Williams
Photo: Marsha Miller

With no previous connection to The University of Texas at Austin, Dayton is creating an endowment that will support a military veteran who is coming to Texas as an undergraduate. It was important to Dayton to begin helping veterans as quickly as possible — something she was able to accomplish by fully endowing the scholarship now. To enhance Ty’s legacy, she has also dedicated a portion of her estate to the scholarship later. While she is leaving something for her grandchildren, and has a few other charities that likely will get something, she says, “The endowment is my highest priority. This is the most important thing.”

“This is beautiful,” she says, “because this is where he wanted to go. I’m an Aggie, my daughter’s an Aggie, and my youngest son is an Aggie, so Tyrell was the only one who was going to blaze the trail and come down the road.”

The scholarship will not be based on academic merit (after all, Ty would not have qualified were that the criterion). Rather, it will be awarded to those with need, which Dayton has defined broadly.

The university’s Office of Student Veteran Services, which supports the more than 500 student veterans on campus, administers the scholarship. Director Jeremiah Gunderson believes the fund will help even the playing field between student veterans and their non-veteran counterparts. “A lot of veterans, because they rely on the G.I. Bill to pay the light bill and buy groceries, have to stay in school year-round, so they don’t get an opportunity to do networking, research, interning, things like that during the summers that their undergraduate counterparts do. So even with all the experience they have that you can’t put a price tag on, they end up graduating behind their peers because they don’t have the same opportunities of an 18-year-old whose parents are supporting them.”

Gunderson adds, “We, as veterans, feel very strongly about the people who never got a chance to come back and go to school, and we take that really seriously. Whenever we see people who are at school and down on the experience — ‘Man, this is terrible’ — they should think about Ty and the others who didn’t get a chance. This scholarship means a lot because it provides for a veteran who is almost sitting in his place in a classroom.”

Dayton says, “I want the people who are the recipients of this scholarship to know Ty.” That means connecting with him via the sense of service that he felt toward his country. She also wants them to know that he lived with passion. She wants them to enjoy their time at college as she knows he would have. “Education is necessary and requires focus and determination, but enjoy it. Enjoy this part of the journey because you’ll never have it again.”

Dayton hopes Ty’s story inspires others to support veteran students too. “This is such a huge area of need in my mind.”

The first award was made this fall to Aundre Wesley, a Marine veteran (pictured above). Today he is sitting in Ty’s place.

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