Jeff Jardine

Longtime Bee columnist Williams wrote his own obituary

Walt Williams started working at The Bee in 1963 and retired in 2000.
Walt Williams started working at The Bee in 1963 and retired in 2000. Modesto Bee file

Shortly after his wife, Wilma, died in 2013, Walt Williams sat down and penned his own obituary.

Very few among us think to do that. In essence, it’s akin to paying for your funeral package because you know exactly what you want and figure your family members will have enough on their minds as they grieve. In this case, Williams saved them the chore of researching the times, dates, places and achievements so many families scramble to assemble as they write their loved one’s story.

That Williams hand-wrote his own really shouldn’t surprise anyone who worked alongside him during his 32-year career as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Modesto Bee.

Williams suffered a heart attack Tuesday and died a couple of hours later at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto.

He was 80.

Williams was an old-school journalist in every respect. He valued accuracy, spelling, grammar and meticulous attention to detail, whether he wrote a crime story, feature or his long-running “On the Move” column. He applied those same tenets when he wrote his own obituary, employing the same straightforward approach he took in his stories, columns and when he wrote the obits of others in The Bee. Except this time, the first person wrote it in third person.

“Walter Williams Jr. was born February 22, 1934, in Lodi,” he began. He told about Walt Williams’ graduation from Stanford, Walt Williams’ career in the Navy and Naval Reserve, marriage to Wilma, journalism career, travels, volunteerism, Wilma’s passing from lung cancer in 2013, and family including daughter Liz Anderson, son Walter III and others.

He ended it by leaving his memorial service information blank for his children to fill in someday.

Williams brought the same integrity and standards to everything he wrote at the paper from 1968 until his retirement in March 2000. Quiet and always pleasant, he dedicated his column space to the people who do the things that make Modesto a community. He wrote about clubs and students and scholarships, and about those who volunteer their time and efforts to making the city a better place.

“A class act,” said retired Bee Opinions Page Editor Judy Sly, who worked with Williams for 27 years.

Accuracy? We shifted from hard-copy clippings to an electronic archiving system in 1989. In 11 years of his columns in the electronic archive, I found one “Setting It Straight” correction attached to his work. This appeared in his March 14, 1995, column:

“And in case you missed the Setting It Straight correction, the cutlines under the pictures of new California Highway Patrolman Scott T. Taylor and Atwater Police Commander Anthony Tacheira were reversed in last Tuesday’s column.”

He took responsibility for an error he didn’t commit, simply because it appeared with his column.

“I worked for him, with him as a peer, and then as his supervisor and his editor,” said Mark Vasché, who retired as The Bee’s editor and senior vice president in March 2012. “In every one of those roles, he was a remarkable person ... with a great heart, and tremendously conscientious. He went out of his way to be fair to everyone.”

Vasché said he ran into Williams just a couple of weeks ago at the gym, where Williams was outdoing him on the stationary bike. “I asked him how he was doing and he said well, beyond a few health problems. I guess we never know.”

When Williams retired in 2000, readers sang his praises in letters on the Opinion page.

“When I finished college as a journalism major, I thought I knew everything about writing for a newspaper,” wrote Lala C. Rowland. “Then I met Walt Williams. He really taught me the fine art of journalism. I hope The Bee will continue Williams’ great work of publishing all the good things young people do and awards they receive.”

And from reader Steve Spriggs: “I read with disappointment that Walt Williams has retired from The Bee. Whenever a nonprofit organization needed a little publicity for an upcoming event, Walt made sure to find a way to get it into the paper. In an era of newspapers turning a deaf ear to small local stories in favor of regional coverage, he recognized the value of giving credit to average volunteers by name, even when their efforts were modest.

“Walt was someone we could always count on to help tell our community about a worthy accomplishment, a good cause or a job well done. Walt is a community treasure and his work will be sorely missed. Enjoy your retirement.”

Wednesday, Williams’ son Walter III finished the obituary his dad began two years ago:

“Memorial service will take place Saturday, February 28, at 2:00 p.m. at Wellspring Anglican Church, 1548 Cummins Drive in Modesto.”

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

In Williams’ Own Words

Walt Williams’ obituary will appear in its entirety in the Local section in Sunday’s Bee.

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