On his way to becoming a highly respected television reporter, Ben Williams not only recorded history -- he made history.
The talented Williams, the first black reporter at the San Francisco Examiner and KPIX-TV Channel 5 who covered some of the biggest stories of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, died Monday of cardiac arrest. He was 85.
"He came at a time when there was a lot of discrimination," said veteran San Francisco Chronicle columnist Carl Nolte of Williams hiring by the Hearst-owned Examiner in 1962. "He was a terrific reporter. He got by on sheer talent."
In 1966, he was recruited by KPIX-TV, a CBS affiliate, and became the first black television reporter in the Bay Area. He worked more than 25 years at Channel 5 before retiring. During his tenure he also was the station's East Bay bureau chief and weekend anchor.
"When you are the first, there is so much pressure to do well especially because if you don't do well, you are closing the door (on minorities) for the next 20 years," said Barbara Rodgers who worked alongside Williams at KPIX.
"He had a real sense of pride in doing well and seeing others come in," Rodgers said. "He was so happy to see others come through the door."
Williams was at the front of covering major breaking news stories including the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the Black Panthers, the UC Free Speech Movement, the Patty Hearst kidnapping by a radical group and the attempted assassination of then President Gerald Ford by Sara Jane Moore who remained in contact with Williams for years after.
During the whirlwind of breaking news, Williams was calm, recalls Bruno Cohen then KPIX-TV executive news producer and later news director.
"He would stand in the middle of the (news) storm and let events swirl around him. He stood his ground and kept his perspective," said Cohen, who is now president and manager of the station.
"I knew he was doing big things, great things," said his son, Ben Williams Jr., a BART manager. "I used to see him on TV every night. For me, of course, he was like a super star. I knew he was big-time, but he was just my father."
Despite covering so many top news stories Rodgers said, "he loved to do more human interest stories. He liked the stories that touched people's hearts. He talked about those more than the big breaking stories."
Williams, a Castro Valley resident, was called a true gentleman by those who knew him, always willing to help out other reporters.
"He was very encouraging," said Brenda Payton, a former Oakland Tribune columnist. "He had a good personality, always upbeat. I don't think I ever saw him upset or down."
Williams believed in the power of education and taught journalism at San Francisco State University for 11 years while at Channel 5, encouraging minorities to get an education.
"I'd say he was an intellectual," said his son. "He was an academic."
Williams grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and studied journalism at Lincoln University.
His work was not unrecognized. He won an Emmy Award, honors from the National Association of Black Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, the San Francisco Press Club and dozens of community organizations including his favorite organization, The Next Step, an adult literacy program based in West Oakland.
"He always said you make your own luck with hard work, especially as a reporter," his son said.
Besides his son, Williams is survived by his wife of 59 years, Vivian, two granddaughters and several nieces and nephews.
A funeral mass will be at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at St. Benedict's Church, 2245 82nd Ave., Oakland.