Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
January 27, 2020
Neil Frink, President of the Peck Alumni Association, spoke before the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) at the January 21, 2020 Regular FBCC Meeting to ask that the the city name the gym in the Peck Center (former Peck High School) in honor of Coach Nelson P. Williams. Frink, who was joined by many other members of the Peck Alumni Association, explained that Williams was a community leader in addition to coaching Peck students in football and basketball. He said that Williams led the community in the building of the MLK Center and the Peck Gym. Under his leadership, the Class of 1959 was named Division Champions. Frink said, “He was more than a coach; he was a mentor to us all.”
Frink also expressed concerns about the Peck Center. He said that Peck is a historic school, founded by Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington. The building originally cost $59,000 with Rosenwald contributing $20,000 and the community under the leadership of Professor Peck raising the remainder.
Frink said that today visitors to the Peck Center do not see the building’s history represented on the walls. He added that the Peck Alumni Association would like to work to change that. He expressed a desire to see photos of Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington join those of Professor Peck and the late Willie Mae Ashley. He showed commissioners and the audience other photos that the Peck Alumni Association wanted to add to the wall: Edith J. Thurston, the first African American principal in Nassau County; John L. Robinson, the first Peck coach; Clarence Simmons, the first music director at Peck. Frink expressed the desire of the Peck Alumni Association to collect and display photos of Peck notables. “This is important,” Frink said, “because it is part of our history.”
Frink explained why naming the gym for Nelson P. Williams was so fitting. “Before he came to Peck,” Frink said, “our sports uniforms were hand-me-downs from Fernandina Beach High School. We got everything except the jock straps. Nelson changed all of that. He started buying us jerseys, pads and helmets. We baked pies and sold shrimp from the boats to raise money for the football team.” Frink said that it wasn’t until Williams, a former Marine DI, took over the sports program that Peck had championship teams. “He was our father, when our fathers who were off shrimping and working, couldn’t be there.
Frink concluded his remarks by reinforcing how important it is for the community to remember its history and quoted an African proverb: Until the lion finds someone to tell his story to, the story will always be told by the hunter.
The FBCC and audience applauded. The members of the FBCC agreed to bring back a formal resolution at the next meeting to name the Peck gym for Nelson P. Williams.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.