Webb was a giant in Texas newspaper industry

Willis Webb

by Lew K. Cohn

Managing Editor

Highland Lakes Newspapers

 

This year has been a tough one for entertainers. We have lost some great names in the arts, including Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, Patty Duke, Maurice White, Harper Lee, Pat Conroy, Merle Haggard and Muhammed Ali.

This week, we added another name to the list of greats we have lost — our very own columnist, former Texas Press Association president and Texas Newspaper Hall of Fame honoree Willis Newman Webb.

Willis passed away at his residence in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on Monday, July 18, at the age of 79. Below this column is the first of the last two columns Willis wrote for us. The other will appear in next week's Highlander.

“Although Willis and I were 20 years apart in age, many of the same people, places, institutions and experiences helped shape our lives. We shared a love for community newspapers, for sure,” said former Highlander publisher Mark Henry.

“He was a true Texas newspaperman. Not just a reporter, ad salesman, typesetter, editor, columnist or even publisher. Willis Webb was a newspaperman and that’s a designation and term of endearment I reserve for a select few. I’ll miss my friend dearly as will many, many others.”

A giant in the Texas newspaper industry, Willis began his career as editor of his hometown newspaper in Teague after graduating from the University of Houston in 1960. Prior to that, he had studied at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, where he had served as sports publicity director for Bearkat Athletics and worked as a stringer for the Huntsville Item and correspondent for The Houston Post, Associated Press, United Press and International News Service.

Willis would later serve as editor/publisher of the Fort Bend Mirror and Cleveland Advocate, Conroe Courier, Lockhart Post-Register, Fredericksburg Radio Post, Fort Bend Business & Legal Review and finally, the Jasper Newsboy, where in 1997, he became the first publisher of a weekly newspaper in the Hearst Corporation to win the Eagle Award for outstanding individual journalism accomplishments.

Willis was running the Jasper Newsboy when the tragic murder of James Byrd occurred in the small Texas town. As Henry noted, Willis “always gave credit to other individuals in the community for keeping a lid on the powder keg that Jasper became during that time, from Byrd’s own grandmother and family members to the county sheriff and others.”

“Many felt Webb and his wife, Julie, finessed the situation and managed to help create an atmosphere that allowed cooler heads to prevail through their coverage,” Henry recalled. “The newspaperman knew the very heart of his community was at stake and not just a story for the newspaper. The balanced, objective, sensitive approach to the coverage he provided and directed still stands as an example today for the community newspaper industry anywhere.”

As for me, your humble editor, I first met Willis some 24 years ago when I was an intern at the Texas Press Association, about a year into Willis' 16-year stint at the helm of the Jasper Newsboy. He struck me as a very smart, witty guy who cared about small towns and small town newspapers. He always had a story to tell and he could spin a yarn with the best of them. Of course, I don't have to tell our readers that as they have seen proof each Friday on this page.

Willis would later serve as president of TPA in 2004, which makes sense for a man who believed that weekly newspapers “offer not only the opportunity to make a difference in the life of a community, but also a chance to participate in all aspects of the newspaper industry.”

Ed Sterling, TPA director of member services, fondly remembers how Willis could charm an audience with his stories.

“A conversation with Willis could turn into a wide-ranging ramble with believe-it-or-not newspaper career anecdotes woven through, like the time he was driving on a farm-to-market road and the Goodyear Blimp lands softly in a pasture just ahead of him,” Sterling said. “Willis pulls over, vaults a barbed wire fence and starts waving and shooting pictures. The pilot waves back and opens the gondola door.

“Next thing you know, Willis is getting the ride of his life, circling above Houston. An hour later, he's back at the bar ditch where he left his car, then racing back to the newspaper office, struggling to meet the press deadline.”

“Willis saw the business change greatly, especially the equipment and technology used in the industry along the way,” Henry added. “At his core he was a story teller and his columns accomplished bringing the reader along for the ride, enabling them to feel the story as it unfolded.”

Other impressive awards which Willis received included the Harris Wofford Award for outstanding service to youth from Youth Service of America in 2005 and the Lifetime Achievement in Print Media from Sam Houston University in 2010.

In 2008, Willis and Julie were honored by the South Texas Press Association with the Chester Evans Award for their years of dedicated service to the association. Willis was a recipient of the Texas Press Association's Golden 50 Award for his more than a half century in journalism and newspapers.

The culmination of a long and storied career came in 2013, when he was inducted into the Texas Newspaper Foundation Hall of Fame. In 2014, he was named to the Texas Gulf Coast Press Association Hall of Honor.

Willis had retired from Jasper in 2007, but didn't quit his involvement in small town Texas newspapers, even after he moved to Louisiana with his beloved wife Julie. His weekly column, Writer's Roost, appeared in dozens of newspapers throughout the state, including The Highlander.

In addition to Julie, Willis is survived by his devoted son Weston Webb and fiancé Heather Bertrand, of Sulphur, Louisiana; granddaughter Jessica Webb of Austin; brothers Kerry Webb and wife Glenda of Round Rock, Clydell Webb and wife Carole Ann of Huntsville, and Danny Webb and wife Nelma of McGregor; and numerous nieces, nephews, cousins and extended family and friends.

He was preceded in death by beloved son Christopher Webb and his parents L. Ray Webb and Ruth Webb Barger.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial donations be made to Texas Press Association or Texas Newspaper Foundation : 305 S. Congress Ave., Austin, TX 78704, South Texas Press Association : P.O. Box 400, Hondo, TX 78861, Texas Gulf Coast Press Association : P.O. Box 1845, Richmond, TX 77469 or the charity of your choice.

Friends and family will celebrate Willis' amazing life with a “homegoing” celebration of life at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 30 at Wimberley United Methodist Church, 1200 CR 1492, just off RR 12, south of Wimberley. A private family burial service will be held earlier in the day at the Wimberley Cemetery.

The “homegoing” is not expected to be quite as formal as the funeral, as another former TPA president, Larry Jackson, will emcee, and Willis' friends and colleagues will roast and toast him with stories compiled from his more than 50 years in newspapers.

Somewhere in Heaven, Willis is probably telling a few stories of his own to everyone who stops to listen, much like he did while he was here on Earth.

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