News

Reporter’s Notebook: Recalling Doug Willis

In this 1974 photo, AP reporter Doug Willis, left, talks with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. (AP Photo)

Doug Willis, who for decades covered California politics for the Associated Press from his perch in Sacramento, was an amazing man – funny, balanced, sane, profoundly accurate, detail savvy and unflappable. He died Dec. 15 at the age of 77.

He was my political mentor, friend and boss, hiring me in 1980 to come to Sacramento as news editor. I had been in the AP’s San Francisco bureau, and I saw my move to Sacramento as a chance to report on state politics and learn from a master. I did both for 21 years.

When the recurring predictions of doom about El Niño failed to materialize, Doug’s lead was, “El Niño is El Floppo.”

“You’ll like it here,” he told me. “People think they’ll stay a couple of years in Sacramento and move on, and they stay for 20 years.” He was right. He had no desire to go elsewhere in the AP system, either, and I was glad he didn’t. When AP wanted him to go to Washington, D.C., he always turned it down. “I viewed it as a threat,” he said, only half jokingly.

Doug was an unusual mix. He was at Stanford in the engineering program, steeped in mathematics and as precisely organized as a diamond cutter.

But when a political figure visited the campus, Doug told me he was fascinated by the reporters covering the event and by the tumult of news gathering. He wound up writing a story for the school paper. From then on, he focused on journalism and never looked back.

Later, at the AP, his technical training was apparent in his detailed budget coverage, his ability to spot election trends and in his creation of an electronic system linking newspapers directly to the secretary of state’s office on Election Night.

Doug wrote tightly. “It’s harder to write a short story,” he said, and he was right about that, too. He liked a good lead, but he eschewed opinion-driven reporting and hyperbole, the twin diseases of political coverage.

He had a brief stint at a small-town paper in Oregon – brief because Doug was fired after using a colorful headline style when the publisher was temporarily away. Doug said later he was delighted to leave.

When union negotiations were heating up, we walked an informational picket line together.

At the San Jose News, then the afternoon sister paper of the morning San Jose Mercury, Doug handled everything from car accidents to crime. At the time, there was a local, fast-talking “rip and read” radio reporter who, with his noon broadcast just minutes away, always grabbed the first edition of the News so he could read the stories over the air – without crediting the paper.

As payback, Doug, covering a freeway crash, wrote a story in which he deliberately included the words “triple-tractor trailer truck.” The radio announcer hit the phrase at top speed and became hopelessly tongue-tied on the air. At the News, his colleagues caught the broadcast in the newsroom and burst out laughing. Twenty years later, that was still one of Doug’s favorite stories.

He saw journalism as a fun gig. He joined the AP in San Francisco in 1969 and within a few years was covering national conventions and campaigns, as well as directing AP’s state political coverage. In 1974, he was picked to run AP’s Sacramento bureau. He won awards, he reported great stories, he entertained us with wonderful anecdotes that never made it into print.

But some of my fondest memories of Doug have nothing to do with political reporting.

We had a huge rubber-band ball in the bureau at 10th and L Streets, a 30-pound orb composed of years of rubber bands that we had taken off newspapers and other odds and ends.

He was a first-rate carpenter, and when he retired his first project was a major remodel of a daughter’s house.

He once drove a brown 1983 Nissan Sentra that had at least 300,000 miles on the odometer. It had ratty upholstery, cracked liners and a swaying suspension, but we used the car whenever we visited AP’s news outlets in Northern California. He drove it for years, finally relinquishing it only because he was unable to pass smog tests. He then went out and bought a new Nissan Sentra.

Before he went with the economy models, he owned an aging Mercedes Benz sedan, which he allegedly drove to Redding – he was visiting the Record Searchlight editors – in less than two hours. Redding is 160 miles north of Sacramento. You do the math.

When the recurring predictions of doom about El Niño failed to materialize, Doug’s lead was, “El Niño is El Floppo.” When I wrote in a story that a senator had “flatly asserted” the state budget was a disaster, Doug edited it to “roundly asserted.” When the AP’s New York headquarters asked bureaus to suggest mottos to commemorate the AP’s 150th birthday in 1997, Doug came up with “AP: 150 Years at the Same Desks.” Others included, “You Can’t Spell ‘Cheap’ Without AP” and “AP: Today’s News Tomorrow” and “AP: When News Breaks, We Fix It.”

When union negotiations were heating up, we walked an informational picket line together.

When Rocky Aoki, the founder of the Benihana restaurant chain, and three buddies flew in a balloon 5,200 miles across the Pacific Ocean, they planned to land near the Golden Gate. In fact, they crash landed in a fierce storm in the remote woods of Northern California. With me working the desk, Doug drove hundreds of miles through the rain in the middle of the night, trekked through the mud and covered the story. He covered plane crashes, bombings, assorted natural disasters and elections with equal aplomb.

When a woman was trapped in a Sierra avalanche, Doug covered the story. He was in San Francisco at an AP meeting, but immediately jumped a flight to Reno, wearing a coat and tie, but without any cold-weather gear. A Chronicle writer later noted there was a reporter on the scene wearing wing-tips who was turning blue. That was Doug.

We had a huge rubber-band ball in the bureau at 10th and L Streets, a 30-pound orb composed of years of rubber bands that we had taken off newspapers and other odds and ends. When we bounced it, the building managers complained. Then we bounced it some more.

Three days before the 1976 filing deadline for presidential candidates, Doug was in Gov. Jerry Brown’s office when Brown, who was first elected governor just two years earlier, said he planned to run for president.

Doug carefully edged to the telephone and called in the story. “Brown was fascinated with how the press worked, and stood directly beside me while I was dictating a bulletin story off of my notes,” Doug recalled in a 2010 interview. “At several points, Brown interrupted with comments such as, ‘Is that how you write all of your stories?’ and ‘That’s not the most important point. This is.'”

At the other end of the line, the desk person taking the call – a tough street reporter – was not happy. “Who the hell is there with you?” he asked Doug. “Tell him to shut up!”

“I told you this was an exclusive. Brown’s right beside me suggesting how he would write the story!”

I could say a lot more, but I won’t: Doug always said to keep it tight.

Ed’s Note: John Howard is the editor of Capitol Weekly.


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