(By Gregor Robin)
Life is beautiful. It can be explained by a sunset, a song or a friendship.
And at times life is also brutally unfair.
Life was all those things and much more to the eternally happy David Williams who passed away on Saturday morning. The competitive swimmer, classic Porsche owner, surfer, collector of war memorabilia and friend and inspiration to everyone who ever met him, was recently struck down with as hard a blow as anyone could withstand.
Williams lived most of his 51 years with a hereditary condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT). CMT, named after the three doctors who discovered it, attacks the nerves that send signals to muscles causing the muscles to atrophy. It affected his hands, made his legs thin, and produced a slight limp in his gait.
But if that wasn’t enough, Williams was hit with an aggressive brain tumor in August. The tumor paralyzed much of his body for the last months of his life. Anyone who knew Dave realized that this was just about the last grownup in the world who should receive this terrible diagnosis.
If one stepped back to look at Dave’s nearly life-long battle with CMT you would expect at least some bitterness, or some kind of negative edge. But just the opposite was true. The CMT made Williams unique in a positive way. He swam competitively since joining the water polo team as an Oxnard High student in the early 1970’s. He made the Semana Nautica three-mile ocean swim his favorite event. He excelled in the backstroke and competed in numerous masters swim meets. Williams showed absolutely zero shyness about his condition.
It actually got him new friends. Women took him under their wing. Other swimmers were amazed by his fluid stroke and smooth turns and just naturally wanted to meet this marvel.
Williams was a Montecito YMCA member for about 15 years. He and his good friend Dave Schrader were the cornerstones of the Masters swimming program there. Schrader, a world class distance freestyler in age division events, was Williams’ shadow in the pool. They would make up the workouts for the evening swims which attracted a revolving door of swimmers over the years. Williams and Schrader went to swim meets as far away as Cupertino and brought anyone along who wanted to come. They’d go out to dinner regularly after Friday workouts with the other swimmers.
Several years ago, Williams and Schrader made the Master’s program at Los Banos Pool their main workout site. About a year ago, Williams fell down at Los Banos Pool and was concerned about it. Then, in August he couldn’t get out of bed. These were early signs of the tumor.
Another swimmer who became close friends with Williams was Anthony Lombardi. They met about six years ago while working at the Volkswagen dealership in town. Williams got Lombardi involved in the swimming scene in Santa Barbara.
“Nothing ever held him back from competition,” said Lombardi. “It was a good inspiration to see a guy go through life and not have any limitations. He’s the one that got me turned on to swimming here and that’s how I met my wife. He basically introduced me to her. He got me into the career I’m in now which is running a boat. He got me back working on the water.
“Dave always had a positive attitude. He was a great inspiration to everyone at the pool. He encouraged everybody and was a good person to be around.”
Williams fought hard against the rapidly growing tumor. He did chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He basically was limited to the use of his left arm and some movement of the left leg over the last months of his life due to the tumor swelling near his motor nerves center.
Williams had been living in Carpinteria, but moved in with his brother Brian’s family in Ventura as his condition worsened. He lived there for seven months. Dave was limited to a wheelchair, but it didn’t stop him.
“At first, he had a little bit of mobility in his right side and he had use of his left side,” said Brian. “He couldn’t walk, but we could still get him in the pool to swim laps. I’d take him down to the Ventura Aquatics Center in a wheelchair. People would give me a funny look, like, ‘What are you guys going to be doing?’ But we’d get him in the pool and he’d start swimming laps.
“It would change his whole outlook on things once I got him in the pool. It’s pretty scenic, the Aquatics Center, with the mountain range and the Oxnard plains. And the staff there just treated him great. They were very accommodating.”
Brian said Dave was worshipped by Brian and Sheryl’s sons Jeremy and Tyler.
Dave was born in Oxnard on April 15, 1957. He attended Oxnard High and Ventura College. He grew to become a world traveler. He took trips to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii and Costa Rica. He also traveled to Tavarua in 1990 and 1991 with his longtime friend Mike Brown.
“They were surfing trips,” said Brown who met Williams when both attended Oxnard High in 1974. They became roommates at Brown’s house at Mussel Shoals from the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s. Williams was also best man at Brown’s wedding.
“We were high school friends and got closer after we got out of school,” said Brown. “Our paths kept crossing since we had the same interests, cars and surfing. A lot of people didn’t know this about Dave, but he was into old Porsche and Volkswagens. He had a rare 1972 Porsche 914 2-liter. He also restored an older Porsche 912 which he sold for quite a bit and restored a 1956 VW bug.”
Brown met Williams when the CMT was first coming on in high school.
“He never let it slow him down,” said Brown. “That was what got him into swimming as much as he did. He never considered himself handicapped and never wanted to be confined to a wheelchair. He made it his mission to be in the best shape he could possibly be in.”
Brown, who lost his own brother, said he and Williams went through a lot together.
“I was devastated when I heard about the tumor,” said Brown. “He was closer to me than a brother. I lost my own brother 15 years ago and now have lost my only real friend other than my wife. We had a lot of experiences together.”
Brown saw Williams near the time the diagnosis came in on the tumor.
“He was broke up about it, but he told me that he’s had the best life he could ever expect.” said Brown. “He said, ‘I don’t feel I’ve been ripped off at all. I got to do things most people could only dream about.'”
Dave started collecting war memorabilia when he’d take his father to Marine Corp reunions.
“Our Dad was wounded at Iwo Jima,” said Brian. “It was pretty traumatic. He got shot in the eye. Dave got into collecting and I see now how much stuff he had.”
Brian said Dave understood the severity of his condition.
“I’d drive him to the doctors in Santa Barbara and on those road trips we would talk a lot,” said Brian. “Toward the end he knew. He knew. But he fought hard until the end, that’s for sure.”
Brian wanted to thank the caregivers at Sarah House. “They were unbelievable,” he said.
It was amazing how Williams stayed so coherent and held on to his sense of humor with a true need to laugh, and could also be so caring for others when he knew the end of his life was very near.
Dave Williams was a mentor to more people than he ever realized. He was a true lover of life and hopefully will be an eternal inspiration for us all.
He is survived by his brother Brian, sisters Denise and Diana, nephews Jeremy and Tyler and sister-in-law Sheryl.
A memorial will be held on May 8 from 11:30am until 2pm near the middle of Shoreline Park.