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SUNY Fredonia welcomes Vanessa and Helen (Class of '60) Williams back to campus for presentation and book signing
Friday, November 02, 2012

Helen Tinch Williams and Vanessa Williams

From the cover of "You Have No Idea," a collective autobiography by Helen Tinch Williams, '60, and Vanessa Williams

Internationally acclaimed entertainer Vanessa Williams and her mother, Helen Tinch Williams, a member of the Class of 1960, and will appear on SUNY Fredonia’s campus Saturday, Nov. 10 at 2 p.m. The two have recently co-authored a collective autobiography, “You Have No Idea,” that characterizes the enduring relationship that aided Vanessa through a series of challenges which arose after she was crowned the first African-American Miss America in 1983.

Vanessa Williams is one of the most respected and multifaceted performers in entertainment today, having sold millions of music albums worldwide and achieved critical acclaim as an actress on stage, in film and on television. The book’s subtitle — “A Famous Daughter, Her No-nonsense Mother and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other)” — underscores how much of a guiding force Helen has been in Vanessa’s life.

The book also includes Helen’s reflections of SUNY Fredonia, where the Buffalo native began at the age of 16 as a freshman Music Education major, including how she met her late husband, Milton Williams, a member of the Class of 1957 and with whom she had 45 wonderful years of marriage. A photograph of Helen with her mentor and favorite music teacher at SUNY Fredonia, Dr. Richard Sheil, is also included in the book.

School and music were Helen’s “lifelines to sanity,” she writes, noting that most black students went on to technical schools in the 1950s. Helen hadn’t considered college at first, she says, but teachers at Buffalo’s East High School showed her that it could be done. She became the first member of her family to attend college, and taught music in Ossining, N.Y., for 38 years.

The free event will be held in Diers Recital Hall on the Fredonia campus, although tickets are required due to space constraints. Both women will discuss their book before opening up the floor for questions. A book signing will follow the event as well. SUNY Fredonia’s Interim Provost Kevin Kearns will take questions from the audience, and tweeted questions will also be welcome.

This appearance is also in conjunction with Fredonia’s annual Hillman Opera, which has been held for 56 consecutive years — and in which Helen starred as a freshman during its inaugural performance in 1956. Helen was honored before the 2010 Hillman Opera with the first Jessie Hillman Award for Excellence, for her lifetime of contributions in the music arts. Helen’s son, actor and comedian Chris Williams, joined Vanessa and their cousin, Iris, to see her honored that evening during their very first visit to their parents’ alma mater.

This year’s Hillman Opera is Puccini’s “Sour Angelica” and “Gianni Schicchi,” which opens Thursday, Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m., and runs through Sunday, Nov. 11, with a 2 p.m. matinee. For tickets to either the Williams event or the opera itself, visit

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State University of New York at Fredonia