Keen-eyed proofreader turns 100

Longtime News-Times employee Nellie Williams celebrates her birthday today.   - Cynthia Woolbright/Whidbey News-Times
Longtime News-Times employee Nellie Williams celebrates her birthday today.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright/Whidbey News-Times

The Whidbey News-Times has a professional proofreader who’s cute as a button, quick with a retort and beloved by all.

Nellie Williams also happens to turn 100 years old today, Nov. 19, possibly making her the oldest living proofreader on the planet.

“Nellie’s our ultimate spell-checker,” said Jim Larsen, editor. “No computer assistance necessary. She’s better at finding errors than computers one-100th her age.”

Family, friends and colleagues have planned a large birthday party for her at the office Wednesday, though she probably won’t be completely comfortable with all the attention focused on her. Williams is a humble and quiet little figure, but she’s made a lasting impression on the stream of people who’ve come and gone through the newspapers over the many years.

“She’s the sweetest person I know,” said former News-Times employee Bev Babb, who worked with Williams for 34 years. “She treated everyone fairly. I never saw that woman lose her temper once, and that’s really saying something.”

Williams started working at the newspaper office in 1953, but took some years off in the 1970s to travel with her beloved husband, Deane. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact dates because employment records are long gone.

Williams explained that she started at the “Oak Harbor News” when owners Phyllis and Glenn Smith asked her to fill in as a proofreader.

“She said I could work until they hired someone new, but I just never left,” she said.

Williams also helped customers at the front desk and soon gave up proofing, at least for about 30 years. She started a stationary business out of the front office after people continually asked her to order office supplies.

At the newspaper, Williams and editor-turned-columnist Dorothy Neil grew to be very close friends and the two “Irish lasses” became the hearts of the institution as they gracefully aged. Neil passed away in 2004.

“They were quite a pair,” Babb said. “To have two women like that at one small newspaper is remarkable. All of us who knew them are very fortunate.”

Williams said she has no idea what the secret of longevity is, but her friends at the newspaper secretly suspect it has something to do with Cheetos. Some time around her 90th birthday, Williams developed a taste for the cheddar-flavored snack food.

It’s easy to tell if Williams has read over a page because her orange-tipped fingers leave behind orange smudges. Her daughter Margie Berwick had a heck of a time trying to figure out how her mother always got orange stains on her left shoulder. Then she caught Williams throwing Cheetos dust over her shoulder, her own version of the salt-over-shoulder tradition.

Beyond junk food, Williams’ children probably have a better idea about what keeps their mother ticking.

“She was from good pioneer stock. Her mother lived to be 101 and she might have lived longer if she hadn’t gone blind. Pioneer women want to stay busy,” Margie said.

“It’s her work ethic, positive attitude, living right, a giving attitude and never putting herself first,” Jim Williams said. “She really enjoys her work. It’s one of the things that keeps her young.”

On top of that, they say, she has a keen sense of humor. She enjoys being teased and is always quick with a comeback. She calls Editor Jim Larsen “big stuff.” With former reporter Dennis Connolly, she would join in his jokes about her drinking at the Oak Harbor Tavern and claim that she won her latest bar fight.

Williams also comes up with nifty sayings. To clean house, she said, “all you need is underwear and an apron.” After a day’s work, circulation manager Lynette Reeff tells Williams that she’ll see her later.

“Good Lord willing and hell’s fire and if the creeks don’t rise,” Williams always answers.

“She’s pretty funny for 100-year-old lady,” Reeff said.

Williams’ kids love to tease their mother about the time she gave them a scare at a rest area on the way to gamble in Reno. They thought she had disappeared when she wasn’t in the bathroom, but then she came out of the men’s side.

“It was just so funny,” Margie said.

Williams has her “senior moments,” as Margie said, but she’s still remarkably sharp for someone born before World War I. She was born the year Grover Cleveland died and Bette Davis was born.

Williams drove until she was 95, but finally agreed to give up her keys because of a bum knee. Her son said she could drive from her home on SE Eighth Avenue to work in just two minutes. A new cop gave her a speeding ticket when she was 75, but she contested it in court.

“The judge said he would dismiss it, but he didn’t want to see her back in court for another 75 years,” Jim said.

Over the last century, Williams has witnessed unimaginable changes, but what she remembers most are stories about her husband, children and friends. She’s lived in the Puget Sound region her entire life. She was born Nellie Edith Hennessy in Centralia on Nov. 19, 1908.

“I’m a Washingtonian, out and out, thoroughly and thoroughly,” she said.

Life was tough after her father died on pneumonia, leaving her mother to raise three girls. A Bremerton couple, who were friends of the family, asked young Nellie to live with them in order to keep the woman, Marjory Anderson, company while her ferry-captain husband was gone. They ended up adopting Nellie, but she always kept in close contact with her entire family.

Williams met her husband at a dance in Seattle while she was going to nursing school.

“He was very nice looking and, boy, could he dance,” she said.

Williams worked as a nurse, which she said was very rigorous, but gave up her career to raise a family. Deane was a lineman for Puget Power and the family moved to Oak Harbor in 1944. She still lives in the same house, though it’s been remodeled and expanded over the years.

“Oak Harbor was a little dinky place back then,” she said.

While it’s remarkable that the centenarian is still gainfully employed, she has a few years to go to tie the all-time record. Ironically, the oldest employed person on record was also a newspaper proofreader, according to Wikipedia.

Audrey Stubbart was a proofreader and columnist for the Independence Examiner of Missouri. She retired in 2000 at age 105.

The betting around the News-Times is that Nellie will break the record.

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