CUMBERLAND — He became an icon, even though relatively few people knew who he was. 

He had wanted no part of being prominent, but accepted it with grace and a sense of duty because it allowed him to be part of something far greater and more iconic than any individual could be.

His face can be found in hundreds of thousands of places across America — on walls, desks and shelves and in kitchen cabinets, clothes closets and drawers.

Even if they never met him and didn’t know his name, it’s likely that millions of men and women loved him because of what he represented.

He represented them ... and the pain, loss and survivor’s guilt they felt for those who didn’t come home with them, some of whom they had grown to love and think of as family, a bond that cannot be understood by those who haven’t been a part of something like it.

Retired U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jim Williams died Dec. 19 at his home in Corriganville at age 84. He continued to serve his country long after retiring from his 20 years in uniform.

Williams was portrayed as “The Man at The Wall” in the “Reflections” print, head bowed and eyes closed in grief, with a hand pressed against a few of the more than 58,000 names that are etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The names are those of American servicemen and women who died in Vietnam or later succumbed to wounds they received there.

“The Man at The Wall” cannot see that another hand is pressing against his, and that the shades of several soldiers and nurses are looking back at him. (Eight women, all of them nurses, are among America’s Vietnam War dead).

Williams was one of the first to join the Vietnam Veterans of America and played a part in creating Cumberland Chapter 172 of the VVA when it was formed in 1984.

“Jim was a great patriot, serving his country with honor and pride,” Chapter President Bob Cook said. 

Cook said Williams was instrumental in the chapter’s success through the part he played in “Reflections,” which appears on several hundred thousand prints, plaques, T-shirts, sweatshirts and coffee mugs that Chapter 172 has sold.

“Jim posed for Lee Teter (who painted the original ‘Reflections’) as being a businessman visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall,” said Cook. “And one can infer what is going through this man’s mind and heart while honoring those names on The Wall.

“Jim would sign the print for anyone who asked him, knowing that proceeds of this print would benefit Chapter 172,” he said.

Williams had been a chapter officer and member of the board of directors and color guard and vice president of the Maryland State VVA Council.

“He will be sadly missed,” said Cook.

Chip Sours, a Chapter 172 member who was described in Williams’ obituary as “a faithful friend ... who was like a son,” said Williams never talked about how he came to be “The Man at The Wall.”

“Jim was a very humble person,” said Sours. “He never brought it up in the 20 years I knew him, and that’s the way he wanted it.”

Sours said Williams hadn’t believed he deserved to be in the print because he had never been in combat. He accepted the role because of what “Reflections” represented and because it would help Chapter 172.

When asked for an autograph, he signed. After enough people asked him for his card, he had them printed to give out.

“Every Vietnam veteran in this country should feel the way I feel about Jim because of what he did for them with that print,” Sours said. 

“The guy loved everybody and was dedicated to the chapter and the organization and what it stood for,” he said.

The VVA was founded in 1979 with the motto, “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”

Rather than being greeted with “Welcome Home,” many returning Vietnam veterans found that they were despised by many other Americans — some of whom went to airports to curse at them and throw refuse at them. Some veterans’ service posts wanted nothing to do with them, but others welcomed them.

All that has changed, and the VVA advocates for all veterans. They are grateful for the fact that they now are appreciated, but remember all too well that few people advocated for them when they needed it.

Williams was active in several veterans organizations and volunteered at the Cumberland VA Outpatient Clinic.

“Jim wanted things to be right for everybody,” Sours said. “He had no enemies and treated everybody right, and everybody loved him.

“He pretty much adopted me and told me I was like the son he never had. We went to a number of national VVA conferences together.

“Jim had a very lovely family ... and he hung in there until the last daughter got there to be with him at his home, after traveling for several hours, before he died,” Sours said. 

Williams is survived by his widow, Laura, and four daughters, three stepsons, 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

React to this story: