Doug Willis: First-Rate Newsman, Straight and True
Doug Willis, the chief political writer for The Associated Press in California across 30 tumultuous years, died in a Sacramento hospital Tuesday night of complications following hip surgery. Willis had suffered from Alzheimer’s for three years. Fellow AP Sacramento staffer Chuck McFadden has some memories of Willis.
I was a comrade-in-arms with Doug during the 70’s. He was funny, generous, and boy, was he enterprising. He did a jailhouse interview with Juan Corona, the convicted mass murderer of farm workers in Yuba City; he sat down with Fidel Castro in Cuba; he talked about politics and The AP in speeches across Northern California. For years after he retired, The AP brought him back aboard to call races — as many as 200 — on election nights. He put in 37 election nights as a staffer and 13 as a consultant.
Judy, his wife of 22 years, once described Doug as “a walking encyclopedia.” She was right. The man was amazing. He had a rare ability to weave together various disparate facts into a story that would make headlines up and down the state and nationally. For years, his ability to handle figures and complex issues made him our chief writer/analyst of the state budget. He pieced together bits and and pieces to do a big story on how much taxpayers were paying for Gov. Ronald Reagan’s trips in a leased private plane. (Reagan’s chief of staff, Ed Meese, had switched Reagan to a private plane out of fear that a commercial airliner with the governor aboard might be hijacked — a popular activity at the time.) Reagan did once send Doug a photograph of himself with Bonzo, the chimp with whom Reagan acted in “Bedtime for Bonzo.” Reagan’s inscription read: “Doug: I’m the one on the left.”
When the bureau moved out of its second-story office in the Capitol to a new Willis-designed bureau kitty-corner across from the Capitol at 925 “L” Street, Doug and I spent much of a night wrestling box after heavy box of stuff over to our new digs. I remember we had to keep the elevator doors open at the new building so we could heave the big boxes out. They kept trying to close. We drove the elevator computer nuts. I don’t think those doors were ever the same again.
There were parties. We’d tell war stories and drink. My wife Barbara recalls that when a war story came up for a third retelling, it was time to close things down and send everyone home. But Doug was a witty spinner of tales, and his career gave him lots of material.
It’s been told before, and I hope it never goes away; no account of Doug’s life in the Capitol can be complete without the legendary pun.
He was among a group of reporters being taken on a tour of the state Capitol renovation, a project that lasted nearly seven years — 1975-82. A member of the group noted the large number of fireplaces in the old building, but a lack of chimneys. The guide informed the group that smoke from the numerous fireplaces was channeled to a central chimney on the roof, behind the dome. Willis then remarked, “Oh — only one flue over the cuckoo’s nest.”
Doug may have left us, but in a way, he hasn’t, really.
I really enjoyed dealing with Doug over many years, starting in the late 1970s. and was pleased when AP would bring him back on for a few days for the big elections. It was great talking to him about politicians and events. We will miss him.
On Saturday, I attended the memorial service for Doug. Over 100 people there, including some long time reporters (some still working, some retired). Some great stories told. One was about Ronald Reagan, long before mobile phones. Reagan was about to make a major announcement and Doug talked to Reagan’s neighbors about putting in another landline phone. For a $50 fee to the homeowners, Doug had a phone installed at a tree in their lawn. AP was the first to get out the story. That was Doug. Dan Walters told the story that on the road he would put a sticker (At of Order) on a pay phone nearby a press event, so he would get his story into the Sacramento Union.