If there is one thing that Puyallup Tribal Elder David Williams is known for, it’s that he is a true blue working man. He has worked practically every day of his life, save for when he had a quintuple bypass one April awhile back and was back to work by June. During his honoring as Elder of the Month at the April Elders Luncheon, Puyallup Tribal Councilwoman Sylvia Miller spoke of this very subject.
“Today we are honoring a very dedicated worker,” she said, “a very dedicated Tribal member. David has been an amazing individual who has always given his all to all of us.”
David has been Director of Maintenance for the Tribe since 1982. When asked if he has any thoughts of retiring (he turns 69 years old next month), he replied, “Yeah, one of these days.” David is a man who likes being useful, and giving back to his Puyallup Tribe that has done so much for him and his family all these years.
David was born on June 12, 1949 and was raised in Auburn. His dad, Arthur Williams, was Puyallup and his mom, ???, was Umatilla. Right after finishing high school, David was drafted into the Army. The year was 1969 – the Vietnam War era – and David took his basic training at Fort Lewis. From there he went to Fort Benning, Georgia for “jump school,” learning how to parachute from an airplane. He made five jumps during this time. Then he got his orders to go to Vietnam.
“I never got to jump in Vietnam, though,” he said. Instead, he was put onto a helicopter and was dropped off high in the mountains with his fellow troops that were already there. “Every day was different,” he said, and included walking trails in the jungle to look for the enemy. After seven months of this, he was sent to headquarters and worked as a radio-telephone operator (RTO).
“I’d have a radio and a map and I’d get on the helicopter every morning and deliver mail and take people who needed to go to different areas of the field.” He did this every day for the last four months he was in Vietnam. “They said I could have gotten a flight medal for that, but I never put in for it. I just wanted to go home,” he said.
Once back in the states, David met his wife, Rita Williams (Quileute), in Tacoma and they married in 1976. The couple will celebrate their 42nd wedding anniversary on May 15. They have five children, three from Rita’s previous marriage and two boys together: David Williams Jr. and Sam Williams who works as a gaming machine technician at the Emerald Queen Casino.
David attended Bates Technical College at this time to learn welding, and took his first welding job at Fisherman’s Terminal in Seattle welding crab pots. Then he went to Pacific Car and Foundry in Renton in 1978. “I was taking home about $369 a week, which was good for way back then.” He was laid off in 1981 then got into the CETA program (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act). In order to gain employment with the Puyallup Tribe he changed from enrolled Umatilla to enrolled Puyallup and made lots of good friends among his co-workers in maintenance. He was hired on with the Puyallup Tribe permanently in 1982 and has been here ever since.
Thinking back to those early years, David remembers working in the old Cushman building and helping to install the totem poles that used to stand in front of the building. He recalled, too, the jail in the lower part of the building, complete with padded cell, and the crematorium. He said lots of mysterious things happened in that building while he was there like spooky sounds and strange smells. “There would be nobody there but you could hear something,” he said. “Or you’d see someone go around the corner, but when you looked there was nobody there. I didn’t want to be on any floor by myself.” There were also tunnels underneath the building that were dark and foreboding. “I went down in there once but only so far,” he said, laughing at it all now. More smiles came to his face when he told of when he and his work buddies would unload semi-trucks full of liquor for the liquor stores on the reservation back in the day.
“We’d see a big ol’ semi pull up and start unloading it and help sort it out for each location,” he said. He laughed about how sometimes a case of liquor would mysteriously go missing. “Almost a year after we quit doing that, we were working in a back room where we used to store the liquor and there was a case of Black Velvet back in the corner. Must’ve been there for more than a year. Somebody must have stashed it there and forgot about it or something.”
Today, David just enjoys being an active elder, going on trips and being with his grandchildren. He said lots of good things about his Puyallup Tribe, which has been there for him and his family every step of the way.
“The Tribe has always been so supportive of me and our kids. I’ve been working for the Tribe for 30-something years and have made lots of friends. I know all the Council people and they’re always supportive of anything you need – just go to them and they’ll help you or find a way to help you. The Tribe has a lot to offer for not just elders, but for all tribal members.”