Owen “Will” Williamson, 100, a longtime copy editor at The Inquirer and versatile staff member at the Baltimore Sun, Knoxville News Sentinel, and other newspapers, died Tuesday, Feb. 1, of a heart condition at Symphony Square assisted living community in Bala Cynwyd.
Mr. Williamson began his notable 33-year career at The Inquirer as a copy editor in 1962. Nicknamed the Dean of the Desk, and the Great One by colleagues, he went on to serve as the wire editor in charge of national and international stories and later designed print pages as a layout editor.
He retired in 1996 and worked in his last years editing stories about movies, TV, theater, fashion, food, and family on the features department copy desk. He worked earlier on the copy desk at the Baltimore Sun from 1957 to 1960 and had two stints at the Knoxville News Sentinel as a copy editor and wire editor from 1951 to 1957 and 1960 to 1962.
Generally quiet in the office, Mr. Williamson was known to remark, “You can be replaced,” when he overheard others grousing about this or that. He famously corrected a mistake by syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers, and the headline on the mock tribute newspaper page he was presented at his retirement fittingly reads: You Can’t Be Replaced.
“He always was a word person,” said his daughter Julia. ”He had a natural attention to details and liked to get things correct.”
“He was even-tempered and kind,” said his son, Carter. “He never got mad at anybody.”
In addition to his editing, Mr. Williamson was a young reporter in the 1940s for the Daily Advance in Elizabeth City, N.C., and the Johnson City Press-Chronicle in Tennessee. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Wake Forest University, a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
He wrote for several school publications at Wake Forest, won awards at Columbia for his scholarship and editorials, and spent the summer of 1962 in the New York-based Ford Foundation’s education writing program.
“He didn’t need much supervision,” said Karl Schaeffer, Mr. Williamson’s colleague on The Inquirer’s copy desk. “He was reliable and an exceptional copy editor.”
The oldest of nine children, Mr. Williamson was born July 21, 1921, and grew up on a farm in Crewe, Va. He had surgery to correct a cleft palate when he was a teenager and supported organizations that assisted others with the same issue.
He was drafted into the Army Air Forces after he graduated from Wake Forest in 1942 and served as a radio operator for the Army Airways Communications System during World War II.
He met reporter Jennie Beasley in Knoxville, and they married in 1960. They moved to New York and then Bala Cynwyd and Wynnewood, and had son Carter and daughter Julia. His wife later worked as a classified-ad taker for The Inquirer. She died in 2009.
An ardent gardener, Mr. Williamson liked to give away plants to family and friends and was credited with inspiring others, including grandsons John and Eddie, to dig often in the dirt. He was a passionate baseball fan and was with his son at Veterans Stadium when the Phillies beat the Kansas City Royals in Game 6 to win the 1980 World Series.
He traveled to Alaska to visit his daughter, and to Europe, India, and elsewhere, and was active at the now-closed Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Bala Cynwyd, and Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Narberth. He attended the theater, created clever limericks, and stayed in touch with Schaeffer and former Inquirer colleagues Virginia Delavan and Marty Perl.
“He was good-natured, helpful, and funny,” Delavan said.
His daughter-in-law, Mary, said: “He was the smartest man I’ve ever known.”
In addition to his children, grandsons, and daughter-in-law, Mr. Williamson is survived by other relatives. Five brothers and three sisters died earlier.
Visitation with the family is to be from 10 to 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 19, at Bringhurst Funeral Home and West Laurel Hill Cemetery, 225 Belmont Ave., Bala Cynwyd, Pa. 19004. Interment is to follow at Westminster Cemetery, 701 Belmont Ave., Bala Cynwyd, Pa. 19004. A memorial service is to be at noon at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 196 Woodbine Ave., Narberth, Pa. 19072.
Donations in his name may be made to Smile Train, P.O. Box 96231, Washington, DC 20090.