Alabama-born in 1868 and the Sooner State’s only bachelor governor, Williams—who added Lee to his name in remembrance of Robert E. Lee—endures as another of the larger-than-life fathers of early Oklahoma. A circuit-riding Methodist preacher as a young man, he settled in Durant in 1896 and succeeded as an attorney, business entrepreneur, and cotton farmer before helping to write the Oklahoma Constitution and serving as the first Chief Justice for the state Supreme Court.
As governor, Williams commanded—rather than demanded—the respect of an independent, roughhewn legislature. Tough-minded and determined, he possessed significant compassion, especially for a politician. He championed reforms encompassing female labor laws, worker’s compensation insurance, workplace safety and regulations, a girl’s reformatory, the University of Oklahoma Hospital, financial assistance for Oklahoma’s many Confederate veterans and their and others’ widows and orphans, a Union soldiers’ home, and the building of two magnificent edifices—the State Capitol and the original Oklahoma Historical Society Building. This all served, however, to neutralize the appeal of the Socialist Party then threatening the influence of Williams and his fellow Democrats.
When the United States entered World War I, Williams marshaled the state’s resources for that effort with such enthusiasm that he gained the sobriquet “Super Patriot.”
Following his term as governor, he returned to Durant, won appointment as a federal judge, sustained his successful business endeavors, and served as president of the Historical Society. Later, Franklin Roosevelt appointed him to the second-highest federal judicial body, the Circuit Court of Appeals. He died in 1948 at eighty years of age, never having married.