Austin Williams stood out, and not just because of his trademark neon running socks.
When he ran cross-country and track at Freeport High School, Williams wore those bright socks and colorful bandannas that made him easily recognizable on the course. But his personality made him just as memorable to the people who met him during his life.
“He dressed in these outlandish outfits,” his mom, Meredith Williams, said Monday. “He wore his Oakleys and his bandanna around his head and his neon socks. He was just his own person, all the way, through and through.”
Williams, 22, died April 5 while serving in the U.S. Navy in Manama, Bahrain. According to his family, he was struck by a vehicle while crossing a road with his friends. He was an engineman second class, previously stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and recently transferred to the USS Sentry in Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf.
His family and friends remember him as a truly individual young man, confident in himself and compassionate toward others.
Williams was born Dec. 15, 1995, in Portland. He grew up in Freeport with his parents and his brother, Sawyer. Even as a child, his mother remembered him befriending a new neighborhood family within hours of their arrival on the street.
“Austin was one of those kids who got along with everybody,” she said.
In the small circle of Freeport schools, Austin quickly befriended a wide range of people. He ran cross-country and track, but he also sang in chorus and acted in theater. His family said he cared more about cheering for his teammates than winning races, and a former teammate said he was even friendly with his competitors. His parents weren’t churchgoers, but he found a community in a faith group called Young Life and cared deeply about finding a place to worship and talk about God.
“Whether you knew him from kindergarten or you knew him for a week, you could call him a close friend,” said Sydney Horkan, who also ran at Freeport High School.
The Williams family had a strong military tradition, and Williams in particular idolized his grandfather, who was a paratrooper in the Army. He began talking about joining the military as a freshman in high school, and he committed to the Navy when he was just a junior.
“He really wanted to be like my dad,” said his father, Andy Williams.
Williams had sometimes struggled to focus in school, but once he decided to enlist, his father said he “buckled down.”
“That was one of the most proud moments for us as parents,” Meredith Williams said. “He found his niche and his commitment. He was dedicated to the military.”
After graduation in 2014, Williams attended boot camp and trained to be an engineman. His first tour of duty was at Pearl Harbor, where he hiked often and called his family daily. He kept in touch with many friends from high school and formed new bonds. He recently re-enlisted for six years and transferred to Bahrain last month. The Navy has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Williams was excited about the new position but worried about running in the heat of the Persian Gulf. His supervisor told the Williams family their son reveled in his job, even though it was hard work. As an engineman, Williams worked on the ship’s engine and mechanical systems.
“Down in an engine room where it’s 120 degrees and you have a jumpsuit on and you’re sweating your butt off, he was still smiling,” Andy Williams said.
Since their son’s death, the Williamses said the Navy has supported them at every turn. They have heard from his friends far and wide, from buddies in Hawaii to former Freeport classmates. His friends from the island got tattoos in his honor, and they will fly across the country to attend a celebration of life service at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport. Horkan, his former teammate and class president from Freeport High School, started a GoFundMe campaign in hopes of starting a small scholarship in Williams’ name. It had raised nearly $18,000 as of Monday afternoon, which will fund a $500 annual scholarship for at least 20 years. Horkan said they also hope to install a bench at the high school’s new track in his honor.
“Our class was known to be a very tight-knit class, and Austin was the embodiment of the class,” Horkan said. “He was like our human mascot.”
And at the opening of the new track next month, all the runners will wear neon socks.
Austin Williams: As a boy he was “one of the kids who got along with everybody,” his mother says. As a sailor “he found his niche and his commitment. He was dedicated to the military.” (Photo courtesy of Austin Williams’ family via PPH)