Ralph Williams

Image of Ralph Williams by a podium with a plaque saying University of Minnesota Morris

Ralph Williams was one of the 13 original faculty members at UMN Morris. He was the campus’s first choral director and was responsible for creating the original band, orchestra, and choir for the campus. Besides founding the music groups on campus, Williams also composed the UMM Hymn and Fight Song. He retired in 1978.


born in Glenwood, MN on June 19

graduated from Glenwood High School

graduated from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities with a B.S. in education

began teaching music in Brainerd

started naval career at the Navy School of Music

earned his Master of Education degree from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities

became the choral director at the St. Paul Campus

married Martha Ohlson on December 26


became the first choral director at UMN Morris and an associate professor in music until his retirement from UMN Morris in 1978.

published the UMM Hymn

took men’s chorus to World’s Fair in Seattle

took men’s chorus to World’s Fair in New York

died at his home in Morris on February 2

Personal Life

Ralph Williams was born and raised in Glenwood, MN.[1] His parents, Martin and Carrie Avdem Williams, raised their family of five sons in the country.[2] They all enjoyed spending their free time fishing and exploring the outdoors.[3] They were also a musical family and Ralph, in the fall of his sixth grade year, began to teach himself how to play the trumpet on a leaky cornet. He practiced frequently and taught himself basic scales and by spring of that year he was able to play trumpet in the local high school’s band.[4]

Throughout high school he continued to compete and play in different groups and by 1930 he even worked as a performer at dances. As a junior in high school, his father bought him a gold plated trumpet that Ralph cherished deeply. He eventually graduated from Glenwood High School in 1934.[5]

Ralph Williams went to the University of Minnesota Twin Cities for his Bachelor’s degree. He participated in a university band for six years during his time in Minneapolis, and in the summers he played in a swing band in Glacier National Park while also working as a trail guide.[6] In 1939 Ralph Williams graduated from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities with a B.S. in music education.[7]  

After graduating, Williams went on to teach music in Brainerd for a few years.[8]  During this time his career was abruptly interrupted by Pearl Harbor.[9] On June 15th, 1942 he joined the Navy and was assigned to the Navy School of Music for a year.[10] Afterwards, he decided to apply for a commission and entered the reserve. During this time he served as a gunnery officer on a merchant ship in the Pacific. After three years and eight months of service, he returned to the University to finish his master's degree.[11]

After earning his master's degree, he was hired to teach at the University of Minnesota St. Paul Campus in 1947 and became the choral director.[12] In 1960 Rodney Briggs, the newly appointed provost, invited him to join the faculty at UMN Morris.


Research and Teaching

In his lifetime Ralph Williams published around 100 choral pieces. He started composing in the 1940s, and ended in the early 1960s[13] as teaching and conducting at UMN Morris took up the majority of his time. However, while at UMN Morris he composed the UMM Hymn and the Fight Song.[14]

Most of his compositions were religious or spiritual in nature. He composed mainly for choruses, but he wrote some pieces for bands as well. He has had a few dozen big sellers in his career. One of his most successful pieces is “Born to Be Free” which has been sold and performed around the world.[15]

Campus Contributions

As the first faculty member in music at the University of Minnesota Morris, Williams was tasked with creating the first musical groups for the campus and he founded the band, orchestra, men’s chorus, and choir. The orchestra initially included string players from throughout western MN and the band took in 10 high school seniors from West Central MN to complement the 37 UMN Morris students. However, as the band department continued to grow, Williams stepped down to concentrate on other responsibilities, and Dr. Clyde E. Johnson took over leading the band in 1961.[16]

Williams focused mainly on the development of UMN Morris' Men's Chorus, which he modeled, based on his own experiences, on the Twin Cities' Apollo Male Chorus.[17] The Men’s Chorus performed at both the 1962 World Fair in Seattle and the 1964 World Fair in New York. Both times the group represented the University and performed for “Minnesota Day”.[18] The group had to pay their own way for the trips and so Williams had to find ways to raise money. The first trip in 1962 was funded by Williams officially publishing the UMM Hymn [19] and in 1964 they funded their trip by creating and marketing their own record.[20]

Two of Williams’s most notable legacies at UMN Morris are the UMM Hymn and Fight Song. The Hymn was first performed by the Morris High School Band in August of 1960 before classes officially started at the university.[21] Eventually the hymn and fight song were officially approved by an overwhelming majority of UMN Morris to be the campus' official anthems.[22] The song became a part of the tradition of the campus and its students. It was even a part of the performances by the Men’s Chorus at the 1962 and 1964 World Fairs.[23]

After UMN Morris

In 1978 at the age of 62, Ralph Willaims retired from UMN Morris.[24] He wanted to spend his retirement outdoors, relaxing, and exploring pursuits aside from composing.[25]

Remaining in the community, he and wife, Martha continued to contribute to the music discipline and to the development of the Humanities and Fine Arts Building. In 2004, They donated to the UMN Morris Music department and the department was able to use the money to buy a protective cover for the Recital Hall’s concert grand piano. The remainder of the gift was directed to the Humanities Fine Arts Phase III Fund which hoped to add to the HFA, including a performance space.[26]

In 2017, after his death, the Williams family created the Ralph and Martha Williams Fund in his memory. The fund is intended to support the Music Discipline for years to come.[27]

Martha Williams was also an important member of the UMN Morris community. She grew up in Brainerd Minnesota. After marrying Ralph Williams, she came with him to Morris in 1960, and began working in the campus post office in 1969.[28] She managed the post office until her retirement in 1992.[29] She was recognized as an outstanding member of the campus community and in 1985 was the recipient of the annual Mary Martelle Memorial Award for her service.[30] She remained involved in the campus community until her death on April 24, 2018.[31]

Deanna Small
Stephen Gross (Editor)
Naomi Skulan (Editor)


[1] "Ralph Edwin Williams (1916-2013)," Find a Grave, last modified February 4, 2013, 
[2]University Relations, "Profile: stewarding the legacy" Profile (Morris, MN), Fall 2013.
[3] Ralph Williams, interview by Jay Fier, 1978, University Stories, West Central Minnesota Historical 
Research Center, Morris, MN.
[4] Williams, interview by Jay Fier, 1978"
[5] Ralph Edwin Williams (1916-2013)
[6] Brian Williams, “Profile of Ralph E. Williams, choral composer,” Morris Of Course (blog), June 28, 2012, 
[7]University of Minnesota Morris, “UMM music position filled,” July 19, 1960.
[8] University Relations, "Profile: stewarding the legacy"
[9] Williams, interview by Jay Fier, 1978
[10] Williams, interview by Jay Fier, 1978
[11] Williams, “Profile of Ralph E. Williams, choral composer
[12] Williams, interview by Jay Fier, 1978
[13] Williams, interview by Jay Fier, 1978
[14] University of Minnesota Morris Retirees’ Association, “UMMRA Info: volume XV, number 4,” Spring 
[15] Williams, interview by Jay Fier, 1978"
[16] University Relations, "Profile: 40 1960 UMM 90 1910 WCSA" Profile (Morris, MN), Fall 2000, 
[17] University of Minnesota Morris, "UMM Men's Chorus to Make Debut," Jan. 12, 1961. 
[18] Williams, interview by Jay Fier, 1978"
[19] Diane Kittelson, “UMM Hymn and Fight song Being Published,” Vanguard (Morris, MN) Apr. 13, 1962. 
[20] Williams, interview by Jay Fier, 1978"
[21] University of Minnesota Morris, Re-collections celebrates: The University of Minnesota's 150th 
birthday; The West Central School of Agriculture's 90th birthday; The University of Minnesota, 
Morris' 40th birthday
, 2000.
[22] University of Minnesota Morris, "Hymn and Fight Song Selected by University of Minnesota, Morris," 
Nov. 15, 1960.
[23] University of Minnesota Morris Retirees' Association, "UMMRA Info: volume XV, number 4"
[24]Ralph Edwin Williams (1916-2013)
[25] Williams, interview by Jay Fier, 1978"
[26] University of Minnesota Morris, "Martha and Ralph Williams make gift to UMN Morris music 
," Oct. 13, 2004.
[27] University of Minnesota Morris Office of External Relations, 2017 Report on Giving, 2017. 
[28] Monica O’Hara, “Introducing Martha Williams and Betty Payne, P.O. UMM. Morris Weekly (Morris, 
MN), Jan. 27, 1982.
[29] University of Minnesota Morris Retirees' Association, "UMMRA Info: volume XVIII, number 1," 
Summer 2018.
[30] University of Minnesota Morris, University of Minnesota, Morris 1985 Commencement, 1985. 
[31] Monica O’Hara, “Introducing Martha Williams and Betty Payne, P.O. UMM.”

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