The "most watched television news" anchor in America, Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News, has some serious Philadelphia hometown bragging rights. His father was the manager of the Center City Wanamaker's in its heyday during the early 1960s. Living in Glenside as a little boy, Williams lived across the street from Phillies slugger Johnny Callison.
"Richie Ashburn used to visit. That was a big deal," Williams said last week at Temple University's Mitten Hall. "And for anyone under 50, that doesn't mean a damn thing."
Little Brian Williams was one of the youngest hearts broken that sad late September of 1964, when the National League-leading Phillies went from World Series contenders to Palookaville during an agonizing 10-game losing streak that scarred a generation of little boys and grown men.
The New York-based network newsman was in Philadelphia on assignment - that night's newscast was being broadcast from Camden aboard the Battleship New Jersey - and to receive the Lew Klein Excellence in the Media Award from Temple's School of Media and Communication.
Two years ago, the honoree was CNN's Anderson Cooper, who said: "I went to Yale, but after hearing from alumni in the Media Awardees, I should have gone to Temple."
Williams said the same thing. Sort of. "I would have loved to have gone here," said Williams, who dropped out of college. "I would have loved to have gone anywhere that gave me a degree."
This year's Temple alumni honorees include ESPN and former Inquirer sportswriter Claire Smith, retired Associated Press reporter Larry Margasak, public relations executive and broadcast pioneer Jerry Klein, NBC10 anchor Tracy Davidson, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Oates.
Oates grew up in suburban North Wales. It was at Temple in 1967 where he met fellow musician Daryl Hall from Pottstown. One night they sneaked into the studios of WRTI, the campus radio station, and made a tape performing together.
"We really suck," Oates recalled saying after listening to the first Hall and Oates recording. "Let's just be friends and see where that takes us."
Williams described his childhood years in Philadelphia as "the last time my family was both whole and happy." His three much older siblings ("I was a menopausal surprise," he explained) began to scatter after the family moved first to Upstate New York and later to North Jersey, where he hid on the backstreets of the same Shore towns as Bruce Springsteen.
Earlier that day, Williams told Temple journalism students about his young adult career epiphany: "I was a college dropout. I had no money, worked two jobs. I had a beige Ford Galaxy 500 babe-magnet for a car.
"My mother was watching local news from one of the four local New York TV stations and she said: 'You're better than any of these guys. You ought to try that.' 'But, Mom,' I said, 'I work at Sears.' "
Williams' yellow brick road to broadcast news superstardom began in a tiny TV newsroom in a town of 21,000 in Kansas. After 13 months, he was back in Middletown, N.J., ready to concede his dream and get on with his life like a responsible adult.
"I had just applied for a civil-service job in Freehold as a night-shift dispatcher for Monmouth County police and fire rescue," Williams said, when an unexpected phone call from a TV news director in Washington changed his life.
"I was supposed to be a dispatcher," he told the students to underline how the future can turn on a dime. "And I guess I would have been really good at . . . dispatching."
His two years at what is now NBC10 in the 1980s were the toughest of his career. He was delighted to be back in Philadelphia, until he found out he was the Jersey reporter and each day reported to the "bureau" - a motel room in Mount Laurel. "It was so seedy," he said.
"It was the hardest job I ever had. Two stories a day, every day. Five o'clock and six o'clock. No excuses. Different subjects. Written on the fly. Written on a paper bag if you had one. Written on your way to cover the next story," Williams said. "It wasn't good journalism, but it filled the news director's time slot."
In the years since, Williams has won every major award in broadcast journalism multiple times. He has reported from war zones and natural disasters. "I have seen thousands of dead people in different places," he told the students. "You have to find a place to put that or else you can't get up in the morning."
But it is Katrina and New Orleans that haunt him most because he saw those dead, bloated, untended bodies in an American city. "I expect to see unspeakable things overseas, but I saw this in my country," he said.
The aftermath of that hurricane remains his most memorable news event: "For what it meant to our society. For what it still means. The issues. Race. The environment. Energy. Justice. The lack of it. It's all still there."