Sixth-generation Andersonian William Law Watkins lived a life of service to his fellow citizens. Born to Anderson attorney Thomas Franklin Watkins and wife Agnes Law Watkins, “Bill Law” was educated in the Anderson City schools and graduated from Boys High in 1927. He received his B.A. from Wofford College in 1932 while already studying for his law degree at the University of Virginia, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1933.
Bill Law returned home and joined his father’s law firm, then called Watkins & Prince. He married Frances Reeves Sitton and had four daughters. He served in the S.C. House of Representatives in 1935-36. During World War II he waived his deferment and volunteered for the U.S. Army. He served in the Philippines, rose to the rank of Major, and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster for meritorious service.
Often called “the dean of Anderson attorneys,“ he was a highly respected corporate and trial lawyer for sixty years, retiring in 1992 from the practice then known as Watkins, Vandiver, Kirven, Gable & Gray (today the Anderson office of the McNair Law Firm). His law career included serving as president of the Anderson County Bar Association, the first president of the South Carolina Bar Foundation, and a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation. He was long-term legal counsel to Clemson College, where his work included securing the peaceful integration of student Harvey Gantt in 1963, and getting legislative approval to change the name to Clemson University. Also, he was instrumental in getting Cater’s Lake donated to the city of Anderson. An achievement with far-reaching effects was his work as instigator, legal counsel and Life Trustee for the formation of the Gambrill Foundation, which has helped many worthy causes in Anderson County. As executor of the estate of Judge and Mrs. H.H. Watkins, important facilities were built at Anderson College, Erskine College and Furman University. Other work included serving as Special City Attorney for Anderson.
Throughout his lifetime, he always found time to assist local non-profit organizations with formulating by laws, obtaining 501(c)3 status, and with other legal advice and guidance. A few of these groups which benefited from his help are the Tri-County Technical College Foundation, Anderson Interfaith Ministries, Partners for a Healthy Community, Anderson Meals on Wheels, the Pendleton Historic Foundation, and the Anderson County Historical Society. Bill Law formulated the organization, wrote the by laws and served as an officer for the Anderson County Development Partnership (now Innovate Anderson), which has attracted numerous industries to Anderson County.
Many businesses and organizations were eager to have Bill Law as part of their operations. He served on the boards (often as chairman or other officer) of the Anderson County Hospital Association, Anderson YMCA, Anderson Meals on Wheels, Anderson Rotary Club, Perpetual Building and Loan Association, South Carolina National Bank, Anderson University, Presbyterian College, Pendleton Historic Foundation, Duke Power Company (also as legal counsel), Anderson Chamber of Commerce (President 1947-48), and Central Presbyterian Church. He was appointed by multiple governors to the state Probation, Parole and Pardon Board, serving from 1954-1969. President Nixon appointed him to the S.C. Education Advisory Committee of the U.S. Cabinet Committee on Education.
Always interested in local history, Bill Law wrote and published several books and articles in his later years. These included two volumes of Watkins Family Genealogy, a newspaper article on Anderson County’s Textile Industry, four articles in Carologue (magazine of the South Carolina Historical Society), and A History of Central Presbyterian Church. When he published his book Anderson County: The Things That Made It Happen, he donated the rights for five years to the Anderson County Historical Society as a fundraiser. This book is being republished for sale in the Anderson County Museum Shop.
The awards and honors given to William Law Watkins could fill up a book of their own. Highlights include Tri-County TEC’s Philanthropist of the Year, the naming of the Anderson Meals On Wheels Center in his honor by Anderson County Council resolution, Anderson College’s Annie Dove Denmark Award, Pendleton District Commission’s Chairman’s Award, and the Order of the Palmetto, the highest award given by the State of South Carolina.
William Law Watkins’ philanthropy lives on today. He endowed scholarships at Tri-County TEC, Wofford College, Presbyterian College, Anderson University and Clemson University. Bill Law believed that a community charitable foundation, if established, could continue his work to help the people of his beloved community. To this end, he stipulated in his will that if such a foundation were to be created and gained assets of four million dollars within ten years after his death, one million dollars would be paid to it out of his estate. Less than one year after his death, the Foothills Community Foundation qualified for his bequest.
Bill Law Watkins was a man to be remembered for his remarkable character, vision and generosity of spirit.