100-year-old proofreader passes away
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
June 19, 2009 · 3:56 PM
Nellie Williams, the Whidbey News-Times’ beloved and world-famous proofreader, passed away peacefully at her Oak Harbor home Wednesday night. She was 100 and a half years old.
Tears and laughter came easy at the News-Times this week as employees reminisced about the gentle soul who possessed enduring sweetness, a playful sense of humor and a keen eye for spelling errors. Her colleagues passed around a bag of Cheetos in honor of Williams, who enjoyed the cheese-flavored snack food to the end.
“She was a dynamo wrapped up in this delicate creature. She was a feisty little thing,” said News-Times employee Cynthia Woolbright, who worked closely with Williams for years.
“There just are no regrets,” Margie Berwick, Williams’ daughter, said when she visited the newspaper Thursday morning.
A visitation for Williams will be held Saturday, June 20 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Burley Funeral Chapel. A memorial service will be held at Oak Harbor First United Methodist Church on Tuesday, June 23, at 2 p.m.
Williams garnered worldwide attention rather late in life. She made international news last November when she turned a century old and still worked at the newspaper.
News-Times staff threw Williams a birthday party, which was attended by family, friends and Chester the Cheetah. Mayor Jim Slowik announced that a street was being named after her. Newspapers and news stations pronounced her the oldest living proofreader.
A simple Google search turns up TV news reports about Williams’ birthday from as far away as India. CNN host Kyra Phillips introduced a segment on Williams back in November.
“Well, maybe Cheetos are the secret to a long life,” Phillips said, according to a CNN transcript. “The proof is in the proofreader. Nellie Williams just celebrated her first 100 years. She checks the copy at the Oak Harbor Washington newspaper and is still going strong. Just trying to get a misplaced modifier by her. Her co-workers got her a cake, bags of her favorite snack, Cheetos.”
Williams started working at the “Oak Harbor News” in 1953 after owners Phyllis and Glenn Smith asked her to fill in as a proofreader. She continued working at the office for the next half century, taking some years off in the 1970s to travel with her husband, Deane. He passed away in 1981.
Wallie Funk, former editor and co-owner of the News-Times, said Williams was always a vital part of the newspaper staff.
“She was one of the all-time great people to work with,” he said. “Nellie just had a huge heart, a great sense of humor and she loved the human race.”
Williams and editor-turned-columnist Dorothy Neil shared a strong work ethic and a lively sense of humor. The two “Irish lasses” became close friends; Williams even sold ads for Neil’s publication, “Spindrift.” Neil passed away in 2004.
Even after a century of living, Williams still made new friends easily. She got along equally well with elderly acquaintances and 20-something reporters, who she loved to tease. She never had a bad word to say about anyone. Her daughter never heard her swear until she was in her 90s when a mild epithet or two slipped past her lips.
At the News-Times, staff members remember the little details. Williams made mock threats with her cane. She inquired about people’s pets and kids. She left Cheetos-dust smudges on papers she proofread. She enjoyed playing the slots and watching the Mariners; her favorite player was Edgar Martinez.
“She had a young spirit,” said Lynette Reeff, circulation manager at the newspaper. “I think working here all the time kept her mind sharp.”
She was born Nellie Edith Hennessy in Centralia on Nov. 19, 1908. It was the year the first Model T was built and General Motors was founded. Although she never strayed from the Puget Sound region, Williams lived a full and interesting life.
“I don’t think even the people who knew her best can document all that she did during her lifetime,” Woolbright said. “We all had glimpses into her 100 years and we’re lucky to have known her.”
Williams’ father died of pneumonia when she was young, 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 was at nursing school at Virginia Mason in Seattle when she met her future husband at a dance. They had two children, Margie and Jim. Deane was a lineman for Puget Power and the family moved to Oak Harbor in 1944. Williams lived and ultimately died in the same small house that she and her husband bought that year for $900.
“She’s going to be missed, that’s for sure,” Reeff said.Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at email@example.com or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.