Next season of Last Chance High premiers Tuesday, August 8 on VICELAND
If you watch the new series of VICELAND's Last Chance High, you'll surely remember the hero of the Montefiore school for high-risk students on Chicago's West Side: Coach Williams. He taught culinary classes, he coached basketball, he helped with classwork and special education projects -- as he puts it, whatever the principal needed, he would do. Williams was at Montefiore for nearly 17 years.
Frank Williams grew up in Chicago. After picking up a culinary degree and a two-year associate's degree and teaching a few stints at other schools, he landed at Montefiore, working with boys (and girls in the later years) aged around 8 to 15. The goal was to get them back in their regular schools -- even though their regular schools wouldn't want them back. Williams understood the value of treating each kid as a smart, decent human being, whether or not the rest of the world would.
"Once you get with them boys, you get to know them. Lots of people don't know them, but you know them," Williams told VICE Impact by phone. "You're thinking about them all the time. My wife used to say 'quit dreaming about them kids!' I still dream about some of them. And I miss them."
Montreal "Spanky" Almond, a former student of Williams' at Last Chance High, met Williams when he was around 12, struggling with speech problems and being bullied a lot. Williams worked with him on his speech, and he also taught him how to play basketball -- he's a power forward -- and how to cook.
"I wouldn't be one to read," said Spanky, now 15. "He helped me, he'd make me read and that helped it get better…he was a good mentor to us."
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Eventually the board of education stopped sending more kids, and the remaining groups began to age out. Williams says he was initially told in July 2015 that the school wasn't closing, just moving. That August, he got a pink slip. Williams says the school board tried to deny him his sick leave and other benefits, claiming he'd retired before the age of 65. He worked with a union and spent nearly a year battling the school board over the fallout of his dismissal.
"For them to lay him off, it was just mind-boggling," said Reverend Robin Hood [NOTE: really his name], a school council member at Montefiore before it closed, and a well-known anti-violence activist in the community. "We need men like Coach Williams in our schools and around our students. He helped build Montreal's self-esteem up, and that school was no joke, some real high-risk kids in there. He loved his work, he loved all them children, and he did everything he could to make sure they were successful."
Williams, now 67, was eventually able to collect what the school owed him. But any savings he had are now gone -- they've been depleted by medical expenses for his son. After decades with a cardiac condition and two years' waiting on the transplant list, Frank Williams II had a heart transplant in Atlanta last week. Williams and his wife are currently taking turns going back and forth from Chicago to be with him, and money's running out.
"Not a whole lot of that, nope," Williams said when asked if his son had insurance. "And he has to stay in the hospital for two weeks and then [within 20 minutes of the hospital] for six weeks, and they said one pill gonna cost like $1,000 … all I know is, it's gonna be expensive."
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Williams worked so tirelessly for so long that his absence as a teacher is felt in the community. Hood called him "one of the few stand-up guys left in the Chicago public school system" before he was laid off. Williams was the one who put a cap and gown on Laquan McDonald, whom most of the country knows as one of many unarmed young black men shot by white police officers.
Williams, who coached McDonald in basketball and called him Sabertooth ("he had a crazy smile"), remembers McDonald for not fighting, but stopping fights, and for working hard. Now, the hope is that the goodwill and generous spirit Williams poured into his community will help carry him and his family through the strain of his son's medical costs.
"The spiritual support from our church, our family, everyone's been supportive and contacting us," said Gwyndolyn Williams, Frank's wife. "This modern technology is how everybody's doing it, texting and everything, so we're getting on board with that."
The family is setting up a GoFundMe to try to cover some of the expenses, which in addition to immediate costs like surgery and travel and hospital stay will include physical therapy and medication, which he'll need for the rest of his life. For now, though, Williams says he's just grateful his son's alive.
"He's my number one," Williams said. "We look alike, we talk alike, everything. Even his name's Frank Williams, same name as mine."
The latest season of Last Chance High premieres on VICELAND on August 8.
Donate to Coach's GoFundMe page right now.