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Family came first for Utah researcher

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When Dr. Roger R. Williams wrote his resume and biographical sketch, he placed one fact ahead of the awards, degrees and accolades that brought him international renown in medicine.

"Happily married with seven children. Most important ac-com-plishment and responsibility."Williams, 54, an Ogden native, died Wednesday in the crash of Swissair Flight SR111 off the coast of Nova Scotia. A professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine and an expert in cardiovascular research, he was on his way to Geneva to chair a meeting at the World Health Organization with a group he founded to promote prevention of premature death through early diagnosis of genetic cholesterol abnormalities.

Colleagues and friends in the medical community were reeling from the news that the brilliant researcher - the principal investigator on more than 21 grants totaling nearly $19 million - was dead.

Williams was also the medical director at Deseret Mutual Benefit Administrators and director of the U.'s Cardiovascular Genetics Research Clinic.

"He was a wonder to work with because he was such an enthusiastic investigator," said Dr. Jay W. Mason, chief of cardiology at the U. "I've never really known anyone who was as enthusiastic about his work - in any field, not just in medicine."

He loved medicine but found his true passion elsewhere. It was clear to his colleagues that faith and family would always come first.

"No question his priorities were his family and his church, then his research," said Dr. Paul Hopkins, who worked with Williams for 20 years. "He talked about going on a mission (for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) in a couple of years. We were all wondering what would happen (to the research and clinic) if he left."

His eldest son, Tom, 26,describes a religious man who both fathered and befriended his children, ages 18 to 28. Tom said he didn't even know his father was famous until he tripped over a box of awards and plaques in the attic one day and asked about them.

"He had all kinds of awards and merits and never talked about them," Tom Williams said. "I never heard my dad brag, and I always heard about (his accomplishments) from someone else."

The man he knew was the "morning person" who didn't need a lot of sleep and who started each day by reading scriptures. "The first thing he did every day was give it all to the Lord."

What Roger Williams did talk about was ideas. Never people. No backbiting or gossiping. When the family sat down to dinner, his son remembers, "we'd philosophize on how the world could be a better place" if people focused on what they had in common and the beliefs they shared.

Williams believed his own faith was central to that and liked to joke that he had a "Delta mission" because he flew all over the world and always told people about his faith in God.

He was open, too, to learning about their faiths. A few months ago, he wrote a letter to his colleague, Dr. Matt Movsesian, also in the cardiology department, who had loaned him a copy of the Dham-mapada, a Buddhist text. He, in turn, had given the Book of Mormon to his friend.

"I hope you and I can promote the brotherhood of mankind through efforts to avoid morally incorrect activities while cultivating those which are right. It is my belief that success in such righteous activities will help us achieve a common mind of true perception of an eternal existence in which our current life is a small but important segment . . ..

"I still struggle at the beginning and end of each day to find a few precious moments to focus my thoughts and yearnings on things much closer to the meaning of life than daily schedules and earthly distractions."

He was a man with many talents and interests, his son said. He loved to play the piano and did so flawlessly, although he never seemed to practice. "He'd worked at it so hard as a kid that he could really play."

Most of all, said Tom Williams, he had a father who dropped everything when his wife, Linda, or children - Michelle Relitz, Tom, Rebecca Lither, Kristin Lindsley, Peter, Katie and Parley - needed him.

"Sometimes people would misread him and assume that with all he had going on he was too busy for family. In reality, he'd reschedule anything to try to help us and he always did. With seven kids, someone always has a major problem.

"I remember one time things were so hectic he didn't have time to sort through his mail at work and a (grant) check for $180,000 got lost, though not permanently. He was just so busy as members of our family had problems, and he was our anchor. Work always came second, even though he always did five people's jobs at the same time."

A month ago, Tom Williams' wife, Chrissy, gave birth to a son, who was not due until this Friday. Roger Williams dropped everything to be there for the delivery. They named the boy Roger after the proud grandfather. And Tom Williams is grateful that his father got to see - and enjoy - the infant for a month.

When Roger Williams traveled, he always had a son or daughter or his wife in tow. He was a "2 million miler" on Delta Air Lines and had taken business trips to dozens of countries. Sometimes he promoted research. Sometimes he spoke for drug companies. (He "told them he would never endorse a particular drug, but he would be happy to talk about the benefits of the basis for the drug," Tom Williams said.)

Often, he traveled to promote the international MED-PED (Make Early Diagnoses and Prevent Early Deaths) program that he founded. MED-PED is a massive public health project that combines new discoveries in genetics with computerized genealogical tools to trace medical histories.

The group hopes first to locate and help people with an inherited sus-cep-tibility to high serum cholesterol levels that can cause early coronary heart disease and heart attacks and death. That was why he was heading to Geneva to meet with the World Health Organization and 30 countries that are part of the project.

With his strong LDS roots, the use of genealogy particularly appealed to the doctor, Tom Williams said. He was opening up the "world's family tree" to researchers.

Because of his travels, his children had each visited Europe and other countries at least half a dozen times. To them, the trips were quality "one-on-one time" with dad.

Linda Williams and a son and daughter were supposed to be on the fatal flight with Williams, but "one at a time, things didn't work out for them to go," his son said. "It was very unusual that he went down alone."

Tom Williams' most memorable trip with his dad was a 31/2-week jaunt to South Africa eight years ago, Tom said. They went on safari. They toured and talked and had a great time. And he learned how calm his father could be in a crisis when the tiny commuter plane they were on developed problems.

"It was old and beat up, and there was gasoline leaking out the side," Tom Williams remembered. "It didn't have technical support in the plane, and when we came down through the fog we were about 12 feet off the ground going in the opposite direction of the runway. We pulled up again. There were little kids - third-graders, I think - on a field trip, and they were all throwing up profusely. Dad had an iron stomach; nothing bothered him. And he joked with me, wouldn't it be exciting if the wings broke off? He was taking my mind off it."

Hopkins said he would never have become a doctor himself without Roger Williams' influence. Hopkins worked with Williams for two years before attending medical school, then while he was in medical school. And it sparked his interest in preventive medicine. He and Williams frequently collaborated on research.

"There are just multiple reasons it has been a wonderful experience," he said.

For one thing, Williams was flexible and encouraging - and always interested in how things affected people.

"He had a very unusual sense of wisdom and justice," his son said. "He thought of the impact that large things would have on small people. And he always wanted to be fair. He really had the unusual ability to decipher what was fair and he didn't play a political game.

"He'd say, `If you wouldn't do it for the guy on the bottom, you can't do it for the guy on the top.' "