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Federal Judge, member of Mercer’s third integrated class selected to be Founders’ Day speaker

Founders’ Day is planned for Feb. 5 in Willingham Hall at 10 a.m. Archived photo by Katie Atkinson
Founders’ Day is planned for Feb. 5 in Willingham Hall at 10 a.m. Archived photo by Katie Atkinson

The Student Government Association has selected Senior Magistrate U.S. District Judge Willie Louis Sands to be this year’s Founders Day speaker, scheduled for Feb. 5.

“I’m reviewing and recalling the Mercer experience,” Sands said. “It’s an honor. I was surprised, since I had no idea that I would be selected, but I am delighted.”

Sands, who is from Bradley, Georgia, started his path to the Founders’ Day stage when he drove past the administration building with his mom as a child. Sands was somewhere around five years old, he said. 

When they drove past the administration building, Sands asked his mother what that building was. His mom told him that it was Mercer University, he said. At that moment, he told her that he was going to go to Mercer University. There was, however, a problem.

“The thing about that,” Sands said, “at the time I would have said that to her, everything would have still been segregated.”

By the time he turned 18, the times had changed. Mercer was voluntarily integrated in 1963. When he entered Mercer in 1967 as a member of the third integrated class of Mercerians, his mother reminded him of what he said about his future at Mercer when he was a young child. 

“It was something I had said at four or five, and then it turns out that when I was 18, I actually went to Mercer and she reminded me that. It was almost miraculous,” Sands said. “I was well aware of the tremendous opportunity.”

Founders’ Day, organized annually by the SGA Heritage Life Committee, brings back a successful Mercerian to talk about how their Mercer experience shaped their experience reaching their goals, Heritage Life Chair Alexis Passmore said. The tradition was started in 1891 to celebrate Jesse Mercer’s birthday.

“I always find it very amazing and interesting to hear about people who are now super successful in their lives," Passmore said. “It is really cool to know that they came from the school we attend today. It is kind of inspiration and motivation to end up in life like them.”

Sands attended Mercer for both his undergraduate and legal degrees,, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1971 and from Mercer Law School in 1974. During his undergraduate experience, Sands studied political science and music. He was also a member of the Phi Mu Alpha music fraternity. 

Now, for this year’s Founders’ Day festivities, he is coming back to talk to students about his experiences.

“Judge Sands is going to bring in his experience,” SGA President Adam Penland said. “That’s what we push Founders’ Day speakers to do.”

Sands was a judicial appointment of President Bill Clinton and has been in the federal judiciary since 1994, adjudicating cases in U.S. District Courts for the Middle District of Georgia. Additionally, Sands was also a member of the Mercer Board of Trustees, but finished his third, nonconsecutive, five-year term in November 2019.

“That’s kept him connected to the Mercer community,” Penland said. “Obviously he graduated, obviously he has had a very successful career, but he still wanted to give back to Mercer University. So he served on the Board of Trustees for so many years, continuing to help students and continuing to make changes to the University.”

Sands was selected from a short list of five candidates, which Penland and SGA Vice President Michaela Jones brought to Mercer President Bill Underwood to discuss, Penland said.

Founders’ Day is planned for Feb. 5 in Willingham Hall at 10 a.m.

“We really want people to come if they can,” Passmore said. “Just like any other event, you hear some amazing speakers. There’s a free gift; it is always a good one. We are excited to kick off this spring semester and the new year with something like this.”

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