Vern Williams, a calm and steadying influence on Merced and Modesto journalism for 43 years, died early Monday morning at his Merced home after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 62.
Williams, most recently the photo editor at the Modesto Bee, began his career as an apprentice printer at the Merced Sun-Star and advanced to positions as Linotype operator, sports editor, editor of the Sunday Sun, a short-lived Sunday newspaper, and ultimately managing editor before moving to the Modesto Bee seven years ago.
Funeral arrangements are pending for Williams, a lifelong Mercedian who also excelled in fast-pitch softball and loved all sports, particularly baseball and golf.
"He was a class act," Mike Conway said. "He managed to remain cool no matter what the pressure. He exuded calmness and confidence and always was the coolest head in the crowd."
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Conway, now the city of Merced's public information officer, worked with Williams at both Merced and Modesto newspapers. He said Williams was always there when you needed him, was a positive influence on many people and had good news sense.
Frank Thompson, the Sun-Star's production manager for 31 years, hired Williams in 1964 and said he was a fine employee. He had graduated from Merced High School the previous year.
"He followed orders real good; he was a fine worker and always conscientious. He could do anything in the composing room and could be trusted," Thompson said. In his early days at the Sun-Star, he was a linotype operator and later worked in the camera room when the paper advanced from what was called letterpress or "hot type" to offset "cold type" operations.
"You couldn't help but like Vern -- and respect him as well," said Mark S. Vasché, the Modesto Bee's editor and senior vice president. "He was a dedicated and skilled newsman. More important, though, he was an all-around good person -- a man of integrity and character, with a quiet strength and a heart of gold. He will be missed by all who knew and worked with him."
Williams joined The Bee in 2000 as a copy editor on the paper's news desk. In 2004 he was named director of photography, overseeing the paper's photo and video operation.
Smokey Thomas of El Nido, who retired in May as the Sun-Star's press foreman, said he and Williams used to have fun together years ago on fishing trips and playing cards.
"He was always a helluva nice guy and a good friend," Thomas said.
Joe Cortez knew Williams for 21 years, when he was hired as a "stringer" or part-time correspondent to cover local sports events. Now a copy editor at the Bee, Cortez said he was just an aimless kid but Williams saw an aptitude for sports and writing in him.
"He took me under his wing," Cortez said. "The man had given me a career, a path in life. In the newspaper world with the landscape ever-shifting, with deadlines and rewrites, I've never met anyone who kept his head in a crisis in the way Vern did."
What started out as a boss-employee relationship just evolved, Cortez said, with Williams becoming a tremendous friend.
Williams' last day at work was Oct. 26.
Williams became the Sun-Star's sports editor on June 1, 1985 and became managing editor about 10 years later. He was a member of the Three Gateways Sportsmen's Club and was an active booster of both Golden Valley High School's football and band programs.
Williams is survived by his wife of 44 years, Kathie; three sons, Jeff, Chris and Andrew, all of Merced; a niece, Ruth Sweatt of Galt; and three granddaughters, Ashlie, Amberlee and Elizabeth Williams.
Dave Lyghtle, the Modesto Bee's assistant managing editor, also praised Williams on personal and professional levels.
"Personally, it's been a rough day up here," Lyghtle said. "Those of us who worked with Vern the past seven years really, really admired him -- respect that was cultivated long before his cancer diagnosis. In our hearts, we knew this day was coming, but the suddenness took us by surprise. He will be very much missed."
Mike Bradley, currently the Sun-Star's press foreman, knew Williams since 1970 when he started in the newspaper's composing room. He joined other Sun-Star employees at card parties Williams periodically hosted.
"He was pretty even-keeled, always a nice guy. I enjoyed working with him," Bradley said.
Bobby Dallas, of Atwater, played fast-pitch softball with Williams on the ASA Major Division national champions and said he was a mentor to him and his brother Tommy.
Williams, who went from being a catcher to coaching, was a big part in the team's success, Dallas said.
"Vern recruited me to play. He was a super guy to be with. The team was a dream of his and Norm Marasti's. He was a good person," Dallas said.
Former Sun-Star wire editor Rick Albright came to work at the Sun-Star only months after Williams started. He remembers Williams' early duties involved dumping bins of old lead type from that day's newspaper and then working setting type on one of the newspaper's linotype machines.
Albright also remembers hearing stories of Williams' travels with the California Kings' national championship men's major division fast-pitch softball team in 1984. Williams always played catcher during high school and adult softball careers.
Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.