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Nick B. Williams, Former Editor of The Times, Dies : Journalism: He shepherded the newspaper from mediocrity to excellence.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nick B. Williams, editor of The Times for 13 years during the beginnings of its transformation from mediocrity to excellence, died Wednesday in South Coast Medical Center, South Laguna, of complications of lung disease. He was 85.

Williams joined The Times as a copy editor in 1931 and worked his way through various editing jobs until he became editor in 1958. When he retired in 1971, The Times--which had previously been named in several polls as one of the 10 worst big-city newspapers in America--had begun to show up on lists of the 10 best big-city newspapers in America.

Under Williams’ editorship, The Times opened 25 national and foreign bureaus, added and expanded several news and feature sections, won five Pulitzer Prizes, doubled the size of its news staff and almost doubled its daily circulation.

Otis Chandler succeeded his father, Norman Chandler, as publisher of The Times shortly after Williams became editor, and the two men worked together to remake The Times.

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“Nick was one of the closest friends I ever had,” Chandler said. “He probably helped me more than any other single person in my life. . . . He was a great editor. I couldn’t have built The Times into what it is today without him.”

Williams was “not the sort of editor who’d come to the . . . publisher’s office and hear what I wanted . . . and go do it right away,” Chandler said. “He was very thoughtful. I’d ask him to do something and he’d push those glasses of his up on his forehead . . . and he’d think . . . and we’d talk . . . and he’d go away . . . and pretty soon, I’d hear this . . . two-finger typing in his office and . . . two or three days later, I’d get . . . a two- or three-page, single-spaced memo on what we could and couldn’t and should or shouldn’t do about what I’d asked for.”

Chandler said Williams was “especially good at reminding a young publisher that you can’t change a whole paper overnight.”

“I tend to be impatient,” Chandler said. “I was constantly pounding on Nick: ‘I want a foreign service . . . I want a national staff . . . I want an opinion section . . . I want . . . I want . . . I want. . . .’

“He steadied me and slowed me down and reminded me . . . we can’t alienate old readers while looking for new ones . . . and above all, we must not make our changes so quickly that we don’t make them . . . wisely and well.”

Williams was a quiet, soft-spoken man--"his shyness was what I remember most about him,” Chandler said in 1982--but that diffident demeanor, born largely of his Southern upbringing, was “very deceptive,” as David Halberstam wrote in “The Powers That Be.”

“Williams . . . did not look or seem like a man destined to be the great editor of a powerful, expanding national newspaper,” Halberstam wrote. “He looked like someone who ought to be sitting on the neighborhood bar stool, or indeed might just have fallen off it, rumpled, unprepossessing.

“The voice (was) high and squeaky and almost country. Yet he was at once the most shrewd and intelligent of editors, a man deeply erudite and broad-gauged in his interests. . . . Tough, strong, wise, immensely appreciative of talent, he was perhaps the ablest major American newspaper editor of his generation. Certainly no other editor took a paper from one century to another so quickly, so cleanly--and with such excellence.”

Operating in Chandler’s considerable shadow, Williams was not widely known, either with the newspaper-reading public nor among his professional peers, but late in his career, recognition finally began to come his way.

In 1971, the USC Journalism Assn. presented him with its Distinguished Achievement Award for “outstanding contributions to the communications profession.” In 1981, he was given the National Press Club’s prestigious Fourth Estate Award, a prize given annually to honor a distinguished career in journalism.

Williams was born in Onancock, Va., developed an early affection for the classics, studied Greek at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and graduated as a government major from the University of Texas in 1929.

He worked for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, the Nashville Tennessean and the Los Angeles Express (now defunct) before joining The Times in 1931.

Two years later, he married Elizabeth Rickenbaker, and they had four children. She died in 1973 and Williams subsequently married Barbara Steele.

The two lived in South Laguna Beach, where after his retirement Williams pursued his lifelong love of literature, art and history and wrote book reviews (mostly on mysteries) and Op-Ed articles (on subjects ranging from the press to modern education to the art of making a proper bouillabaisse) for The Times.

He also wrote periodic notes to Chandler, offering his comments on the paper’s performance.

Williams’ rapid climb to the editorship of The Times surprised even him.

He said later he had no advance knowledge he would be appointed managing editor of The Times in 1957 and was even more surprised when Norman Chandler told him when he became editor: “Above all, I want the paper to be fair.”

Although Otis Chandler now says The Times was “not quite as bad as its reputation” when Williams took charge, the paper was widely derided in journalistic circles then, both for the inadequacy of its news coverage and, especially, for its heavily slanted, pro-Republican political coverage.

In 1937, a survey of 93 Washington correspondents rated The Times “third worst” on a list of the “least fair and reliable” newspapers in the country, and while Norman Chandler had begun to improve the paper’s quality and integrity in his final years as publisher, The Times was still widely seen as an archconservative Republican mouthpiece in the late 1950s.

Williams was no “wild liberal,” as he often said. Although he generally voted Democratic--four times for Franklin Roosevelt and twice for Adlai Stevenson, in fact, and for John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson--Williams frequently spoke of himself as essentially a “moderate Republican.”

In the early and mid-1960s, he wrote several columns for The Times supporting America’s military presence in Vietnam, and in the paper’s own house organ he warned that American intervention in Southeast Asia was “the only alternative to complete Communist domination all the way south to Australia, and all the way north to Japan.”

But Williams realized The Times had to free itself of its partisan taint if it was ever to be regarded as a first-quality newspaper.

“We have to be above even the shadow of suspicion that we are ideologues,” he told a subordinate editor in one of the many memos he wrote on his plans and hopes for the paper.

On another occasion, he wrote of what he termed “my concern over what the readers of The Times must think of the credibility of its news report when any fraction of it seems--to use a reader’s frequent phrase--vindictively slanted.”

One of Williams’ early attempts to distance The Times from its ultraconservative past was a five-part series on the John Birch Society, written by Gene Blake, published in March, 1961, and followed by a front-page editorial that proclaimed:

“The Times does not believe that the argument for conservatism can be won--and we do believe it can be won--by smearing as enemies and traitors those with whom we sometimes disagree.”

Neither the editorial nor the news series was a repudiation of Republicanism--not even of conservative Republicanism--but they were a repudiation of irresponsible ultraconservativism, and that in itself was a marked departure from The Times of previous decades. Letters and calls of protest flooded the paper, and more than 15,000 readers canceled their subscriptions.

As Williams cautiously moved the paper in other new directions, there were other protests. But gradually, new readers--and new respect--came to The Times.

Throughout this period--indeed, throughout his editorship--Williams wrote very personal columns for the paper, trying to explain the changes he was making, discussing the role and responsibility of a daily newspaper and introducing various reporters and editors to the readers. He also wrote frequently on the importance of the 1st Amendment guarantees of a free press and of The Times’ increasing efforts to exercise that freedom responsibly.

Williams was a sensitive man, though, and he did not let his commitment to excellence and integrity in journalism blind him to the personal needs of those around him. When he learned, for example, that the paper’s longtime political editor, Kyle Palmer, was retiring broke, with no pension, Williams personally decided to keep Palmer on salary as his “personal adviser.”

Even though Palmer had been a political kingmaker who represented many of the worst aspects of the “old” Times, Williams felt--and later said--that it was “ungrateful” of The Times to “leave him destitute in his old age.”

But Williams was also a man of quick, intuitive judgment at times. Williams disliked Richard Nixon from the moment he first saw him, he once said.

“He came into the paper one day when I was just a news editor,” Williams recalled in 1982, “and he started talking to . . . the city editor . . . and they began calling all over town. I didn’t know who he was . . . but when he left, I asked . . . and I was told. . . .

“It seemed Nixon’s wife wasn’t home when he got there, so he came down to have us help him track her down. I figured any guy who came running to a newspaper to help him find his wife when she’d just . . . gone to a movie for a couple of hours had something wrong with him.”

The Times continued to endorse Nixon for office--Williams’ feelings notwithstanding--but that was one of the few areas in which Williams was unsuccessful.

His triumphs did not come easily, though, and he often grew so frustrated with the problems of trying to reshape The Times that he wished the occasional fiction he wrote for various pulp magazines had proved lucrative enough for him to quit The Times and write fiction full time.

Some members of The Times staff thought Williams too cautious, too slow in moving the paper forward, too reluctant to involve the paper in aggressive investigative reporting.

Critics on the staff also complained from time to time that Williams--inhibited by his shyness, by his sensitivity to the feelings of others and by his abhorrence of direct confrontation--didn’t communicate nearly as well as a top editor should have with his subordinates.

Clearly, Williams kept many of his frustrations bottled up, and trying to balance the sometimes conflicting desires of his young publisher, his publisher’s older family, his own staff, his two managing editors, his readers (old and new) and his own sense of what The Times could (and should) do, Williams developed ulcers that got steadily worse until his retirement--and then disappeared, he said. He also developed a habit of taking two very quick drinks as soon as he got home each night--"virtually a fix” in the words of Halberstam.

But for all the tensions and animosities engendered by the daily newspaper battles and the struggle toward journalistic excellence, Williams was not a man of unrelenting solemnity. Far from it.

As he once wrote to one of his editors, “Being serious in purpose does not mean being drab,” and Williams could be anything but drab. The columns he wrote for The Times covered a wide range of subjects--books, politics, his wife and children, feminism, the Beatles--and, in his writing and in person, he often had a wry sense of humor and quick, sometimes ribald wit.

“With close friends,” Otis Chandler recalled, “he could have one helluva good time, laughing and giggling and drinking.”

In addition to his wife, Williams is survived by daughters Susan Williams, Mrs. Elliott Davis and Mrs. Elizabeth Agajanian; by a son, Nick Van Boddie Williams Jr., a senior editor of The Times Sunday Magazine, and by seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Memorial services are pending.


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