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By Kate Daly
Special to the Almanac
It's no coincidence that award-winning reporter Rita Williams of Portola Valley is retiring from Channel 2 (KTVU-TV) on Feb. 27. She told her boss months ago that she was planning to leave, and he picked that day because it's the last day of the ratings period.
Ms. Williams will be turning 66 the following week. "I'm probably the only female television reporter who's still on the street 41 years later," she says, pointing out that she never wanted to be an anchor and sit on the set.
"I've always wanted to be a writer, and a journalist," she explains, ever since she wrote for her middle school newspaper in Lubbock, Texas. But back then, she says, "I never aspired to be a TV reporter because it was all old, fat, white men."
Her trailblazing started early. She was the first in her family to go to college, attending Texas Tech University on a scholarship and majoring in journalism. After that she went on to become press secretary for Texas Congressman George Mahon for three years and learned "a lot about covering politics" between her job and taking night classes to earn a master's degree in political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
At age 25 she faced a fork in the road and chose to apply for a Westinghouse Broadcasting training program rather than accept a newspaper position back in Texas. That decision eventually led her to a TV reporting job in San Antonio, where she met Lindsay Bowen, a former Navy officer. After their wedding, they had another decision to make: Follow his work in computers to the Bay Area or go to Atlanta, where she had a job offer.
In 1978, they moved to California and she started freelancing at KQED and KTVU television stations. She was hired full time at the Oakland-based station in 1980.
Back then, in the broadcasting business, "a lot of women didn't get married, or got married and divorced," she observes. "I was the first on-air reporter to have a baby and be pregnant on the air."
She recalls working with longtime cameraman Bill Moore, Belva Davis' husband. He had orders not to show Ms. Williams' changing body, so he kept tightening up his focus, shooting closer and closer until he joked, "I'm just going to have to show your eyes."
She remembers getting 10 days of sick leave when she had her son. After experiencing some complications that delayed her return to work, she vowed to change things to ensure "other women who followed me wouldn't be treated like that."
She says she has always worked hard. "I've always felt I'm the eyes and ears of the public, I'm the watchdog. ... I competed with myself to do the best job ... every single day I gave them more than 110 percent."
She considers herself tenacious, but also sees herself as bringing a woman's feeling and warmth to her reporting. She recalls a news conference she covered after a child was murdered. "I remember waiting until all the guys finished yelling their questions, and I knew the police chief had kids, and asked, 'How did this case affect you?' He teared up and said, 'This is the hardest case in my 39 years; I have a kid the same age, and it hurts.'" That turned out to be the quote most of the newsmen used in their stories.
Another memorable story she tells is running onto the Bay Bridge minutes after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, wondering if she was putting her own life in danger, spending the night there, and then reporting on the situation from another live location well into the next day. She also witnessed the last gas chamber execution at San Quentin in 1993.
She won a George Peabody award for her lead investigative reporting on the killing of passenger Oscar Grant by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle in 2009. She got an exclusive interview with Mr. Mehserle, done clandestinely in jail. Ms. Williams says: "I received lots of death threats after that. ... I didn't go out on the streets of Oakland for another couple of months."
For years she worked out of an office in the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. "I had so many sources in the Federal Building ... and did some really good reporting," she admits, which helped her be the first to break the story when Giants home-run hitter Barry Bonds was indicted on perjury and obstruction charges in 2007. She won an Emmy for that story and a second Emmy for a piece she did after two young Marines were killed in Iraq and their bodies were flown back to the East Bay.
Ms. Williams displays those three golden awards on the mantel in the living room of the home she's kept in Portola Valley since 1989. Her other awards hover around her desk alongside piles of papers. She has stored boxes of more papers in her backyard barn and envisions taming them into a memoir some day. She also sees herself writing mystery novels in the future.
For now she has few plans. She will speak at Writers' Week and Career Day at two local high schools and emcee a breakfast for Pathways Hospice. She's also planned her farewell party and has turned it into a fundraiser for Friends of Faith. Faith Fancher was a KTVU reporter who died of breast cancer.
Ms. Williams is looking forward to not having a schedule, coasting into summer, and perhaps traveling in the fall. She notes, "I've never been able to enjoy the spring, never had time to enjoy the beauty around here." And now she can.