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CELEBRATE! : ORANGE COUNTY'S FIRST 100 YEARS : FORGING AN IDENTITY : Thanks for the Memories : KENNY WILLIAMS

May 22, 1988|SHERRY ANGEL

Names and faces in the news come and go. Often, the people who help shape the quality of our lives are almost--but not quite--forgotten once their tasks are completed and they move on. Sometimes, their names come up and we wonder where they are and what they are doing.

Orange County was growing up fast in the late 1950s, shifting from agriculture to industry and from resort cottages to single-family homes at a dizzying rate. But Kenny Williams, then district attorney, wasn't impressed. He still saw the county as a small town--small enough to be kept clean by a district attorney with a firm hand.

The tall, curly-haired Williams--now a robust 79-year-old who lives in Villa Park and still smokes the cigars that have long been his trademark--says the county was too quiet for his taste when he came here from Los Angeles in 1951 to serve as deputy district attorney.

But after he became district attorney in 1957, he was too busy to be bored. From then until 1966, when he was appointed to the Superior Court bench by then-Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, he was fighting the kind of crime that comes with urbanization--bookmaking, drug pushing, prostitution and pornography. Still, crime occurred on a small enough scale that, Williams says, "we could keep a good handle on it."

He takes pride in the fact that he kept a lid on organized crime by cracking down on bookmaking. He also "took a dim view" of drug pushing. He tackled the problem by borrowing the best narcotics officer from each city and forming a team that coordinated drug raids countywide. "All police units were entitled to the information we picked up," he recalls. "We did well."

As the county grew, crime became more sophisticated, and during his 12 years on the Superior Court bench, Williams faced his share of political crooks. The growth of white-collar crime didn't surprise him; he saw it as a natural outgrowth of an expanding population and economy. "Somebody yells gold, and everybody wants a piece of it." But he regrets losing the days when "people knew each other, ideals and ethics were present, and you had a stable community."

Williams, whose gruff manner is easily forgiven by friends but often baffling to strangers, is as well-remembered for his soft spots as for his tough approach to law enforcement. He was often seen strolling in front of the old County Courthouse in Santa Ana with his "educated" duck Quack trailing behind. As a newborn, Quack, a gift from a friend who had stolen a mallard egg from Disneyland, spent many nights in the palm of Williams' hand. Later, the gregarious duck often sat impatiently in a box on Williams' desk, sometimes serving as a sounding board for a district attorney frustrated with criminals who refused to be reformed.

Williams says he tried reforming about 30 ex-cons, mostly by helping them get jobs they couldn't keep. "After about eight years, I gave up," he says.

As district attorney, Williams also used to visit inmates in county jail and listen to their beefs. He'd put on old clothes and visit prisoners on Tuesday nights, then return on Thursday nights so they'd have one more chance to tell the truth. In court, sometimes it was the defendant who would tell the judge, "I don't want to say nothin' till the D.A. gets here," Williams recalls. His talks with defendants--and "dickering" with the public defender--kept a lot of cases from clogging up the courts, he says.

Today, Williams remembers his days as district attorney more fondly than his years on the bench: "I was a very good D.A., but an average run as a judge."

When he retired from the bench in 1979, he could say that none of his rulings in criminal cases had been reversed by a higher court. But he was more comfortable as district attorney.

Today, Williams lives in a sprawling ranch home with Liz, his wife of 50 years. He dabbles in the stock market and raises cycads, fern-like tropical plants that he dotes on like an over-protective parent. Quack long ago fell victim to a cat; an aged dog named Blue is now Williams' constant companion.

He says he doesn't understand why people today are interested in hearing about his years in public service. "We have our time. Then age moves us on, and someone takes our place," he says.

But his contribution to local lore refutes that modest reflection. People do move on, but no one can match Kenny Williams' style.

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