John Alexander Williamson, by his own admission, was a risk-taker, a characteristic which, as he wrote in his book, “would stand me in good stead in the Pacific” where he earned hero status in World War II.”
Williamson was born in Brighton and moved to Birmingham at age two. He attended Hemphill School, skipping several grades, and starting at Ensley High School a year and a half younger than his classmates. He graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 1939 with a degree in mathematics and a minor in English.
He began his professional career selling Chevrolets for Drennen Motor Company but World War II was brewing and Williamson joined the Navy, eating extra heavily in order to gain the needed weight to be accepted. He was a Navy veteran of both World War II and the Korean conflict and was decorated for bravery and leadership. Mr. Williamson commanded a sub-chaser in the Caribbean and a destroyer escort in the Pacific during World War II. As Executive Officer of the Destroyer Escort, USS England, he directed his ship in attacks that sank six Japanese submarines in 12 days. His ship was credited with materially impacting the course of the Pacific Campaign and he received the Presidential Unit Citation. Williamson also held the Legion of Merit for Combat and the Silver Star Medal for Combat in the Pacific Area.
While serving as an instructor in the Anti-Submarine Warfare and Seamanship in the Subchaser Training Center in Miami, he developed a man overboard recovery procedure that was later named the “Williamson Turn,” which is still used in the U.S. Navy as well as in other navies and the merchant marine and is credited with saving countless lives at sea.
After his military service, Williamson returned to Birmingham and work as a car salesman with Don Drennen and later as a district manager with General Motors. Williamson became prominent in American automotive affairs through his consulting and training activities, which developed into a lifelong mission of developing businesses based on finding and filling customers’ needs with high levels of professionalism and integrity. These activities led to the creation of several allied business firms, including his career-long core consulting firm, John Williamson & Associates, later known as Williamson, Merrill, Taylor, & Darling, and then Vantage Associates. He was the founder and chairman of Key-Royal Automotive, whose mission was to increase professionalism in the automobile business and to increase the success of automobile retailers. Key-Royal sought to attract bright young people into the retail automobile field, teach them the business, and help them to become independent dealers. Key-Royal grew to over 25 retail dealerships throughout the United States and operated a training arm that worked with automobile manufacturers and dealers around the world. Mr. Williamson was also a founder of Birmingham-based CARS, Inc., which was an early pioneer in the integration of computers and technology in the automotive business. CARS eventually became publicly traded DYATRON which later merged into SunGard Data Systems, a specialty company in the operations of computers and computing systems with products utilized in the automobile, banking, personnel, brokerage, and mortgage banking industries. John Williamson founded each of these firms and served each as a perpetual advocate, board member, and, from time to time, chairman.
John Williamson received the National Freedom Foundation Award for his open address to Congress, “After 200 Years, Citizen Speaks to Congress,” published July 4, 1976. In 1999 he was presented the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, the highest medal that can be bestowed on a civilian. Mr. Williamson is well-known in the Defense Department establishment and has lectured military students on numerous occasions, including the War College. He served on the boards of numerous defense-related organizations. Mr. Williamson also was extremely active in religious and civic affairs, serving on and often chairing the boards of numerous organizations. It was once said that he was such a prolific and determined fundraiser for charity that people would hide behind a tree when they saw him coming down the street. In addition to his business career, he tirelessly sought to help others, both directly and through numerous charitable and civic endeavors, devoting particular attention to the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Boy Scouts, IMPACT Family Counseling, Re-Entry and KAIROS prison ministries, and the Rotary Club.