WRAL-TV PRODUCER-DIRECTOR CLARENCE WILLIAMS
[as published in The Carolinian 10-22-15]
LEGENDARY DIRECTOR RETIRES
FROM WRAL AFTER 49 YEARS
By Cash Michaels
After 49 years, award-winning producer – director Clarence Williams is retiring from the number one television station in the Raleigh/Durham/Fayetteville market, WRAL-TV5. By all accounts, Williams is the longest serving employee at WRAL, and its parent company, Capitol Broadcasting Co.(CBC).
Not only has Williams directed countless local newscasts and special programs, but also worked camera for ABC’s Monday Night Football with Howard Cosell, NCAA football telecasts, and even changed the way coaches shows are done nationally when he directed NC State Wolfpack basketball Coach Jim Valvano’s weekly television program on location.
He’s worked weather emergencies, state and national crises, and when WRAL became the first television station in the world, even before the national networks, to broadcast an entire newscast in high definition on October 12, 2000, Williams was there to help steer history in the making, and set a new standard of excellence.
“I feel very fortunate that we’ve been on the cutting edge,” Williams says proudly, looking back over his tenure with Channel 5. “We’ve helped to develop some things. We’re a superstation.”
October 28th next week is scheduled to be his last day at the station, and it will be bittersweet for those who simply can’t imagine being in the newsroom knowing that Williams won’t be behind the controls, directing which camera will move into what position, or which reporter out in the field should standby.
“I feel like I’m losing a brother,” says Tom Campbell, producer and host of WRAL-TV’s weekly statewide political talk program NC Spin, which Williams directs. “After 16 years together we think so much alike that one of us can start a thought and the other finish it. Not only is Clarence Williams extremely competent, he is a gifted television producer/director.”
Indeed, it would be hard to argue that Williams and WRAL didn’t grow up together, setting groundbreaking television news standards over the past few decades that have made the station one of the most respected trailblazers in the industry. A television station that has become an integral part of the Raleigh community fabric, despite a controversial early racial history that veterans of the African-American community remember all too well.
But to hear Williams’ WRAL colleagues tell it, what they’ll miss most, beyond his technical expertise and journalistic leadership, is his basic decency.
“When the workload here at WRAL-TV would become overwhelming to many, Clarence would often stop by a co-workers’ desk, flash his horizon to horizon smile and say, “How can I help you? It will be ok,”” recalls longtime WRAL-TV anchor David Crabtree about his friend and colleague.
“Clarence Williams sets the standard, the gold standard for humanity. He loves his family, his work, his friends, the Catholic Church, God. Clarence loves life,” Crabtree continued. “Mine is better because I know him. Mine is richer because Clarence Williams knows me by name. Mine is blessed because Clarence Williams is my friend.”
“He is one of the best humans on this planet,” echoes NC Spin’s Tom Campbell. “His humility is inspiring and his deep care for others is contagious. He wants the best for everyone and I love him and want him in my life forever.”
The feeling is just as strong from WRAL weekend anchor Ken Smith, who has worked with Williams for 15 years.
“Clarence is one of the most humble, gracious and kind people I have ever met,” Smith told The Carolinian. “When you meet Clarence, he always has a story for you and often times you come away laughing, but also smarter! I have valued his advice and guidance over the years. I am a better man, for knowing Clarence Williams, forever a mentor.”
The legacy of Clarence Williams is a remarkable one indeed, because upon hearing it, there can be little doubt that even as a young black child growing up in segregated Southeast Raleigh during the 1950’s and 60’s, he was a visionary, refusing to be constrained by racism or other barriers imposed upon him at the time.
Williams was surrounded by role models like black doctors, lawyers, and even World War II figures who influenced him greatly.
“I feel very fortunate growing up in Southeast Raleigh, where I had mentors like my cousin, [former Carolinian columnist] Pete Wilder; Dr. Christopher Hunt; my great Uncle Tom Tate, who was a member of the Red Ball Express [a legendary all-black World War II unit in the Battle of the Bulge],” Williams recalls. “Even my mailman was a Tuskegee Airman. We all knew each other, and knew of each other.”
Veteran educator Dr. Robert Bridges, recently inducted into the Raleigh Hall of Fame, was responsible for coordinating the Industrial Cooperative Training program – a vocational program for students who didn’t want to attend college - for the old Raleigh City Public School System.
Bridges recalls talking with the lanky young Southeast Raleigh tenth-grader from all-black J. W. Ligon High School one afternoon in 1966.
“Clarence said, ““I want to be in TV. TV is the future, Mr. Bridges, and I want to be part of that.””
The statement was extraordinary, given that television was still in its clunky black and white infancy, and many black families didn’t even have a television set. When a “negro” celebrity like singers Pearl Bailey or Sammy Davis, Jr. would appear on the popular Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights, it would be big news across the community. No African-Americans then even appeared in commercials.
Young Clarence Williams felt there should be more blacks on television, and in television, and he wanted to be part of that revolution.
Bridges was thinking more along the lines of a meat-cutting or construction job for the young man, but the young man was clear on what he wanted.
White students from Broughton and Enloe high schools were already training at WRAL-TV. The best known of the few African-Americans even working there was a very talented man named J. D. Lewis, who was the first black on Raleigh radio, who also hosted a popular TV dance music program called “Teenage Frolics.”
But there was an even bigger barrier to getting young Clarence into the number one television station in the market, and his name was Jesse Helms.
It was the height of the civil rights movement. The NAACP, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others were boldly challenging long held southern segregation laws that limited opportunities for blacks in North Carolina and elsewhere.
With Helms leading the way, WRAL-TV was a prominent bulwark against any civil rights progress in the South, as retired educator Alice McCullough-Garrett, recalls.
“What I saw and heard from Jesse Helms as a young student for a long time turned me against watching WRAL,” she told The Carolinian. “The hate, name calling and racism he levied against African Americans only lead me to delve into the study of the greatness of my people.”
Helms was not just an infamous editorialist doing a daily five-minute rant on WRAL-TV called “Viewpoint,” where he would routinely champion state’s rights against racial integration, and bash “communist instigators” like “Martin Luther Coon,” but Helms, who would later become a powerful five-term conservative US senator, was also a vice president and general manager at Capitol Broadcasting and WRAL.
That meant Bridges had to approach Helms directly with his request that young Clarence Williams be given an opportunity to interview for a position at the station.
Helms had hired blacks there before, but was concerned about Williams being a possible troublemaker, so he told Bridges to “…send the boy on out here and let me interview him.”
Bridges recalls telling young Clarence the next day exactly what Helms said, “boy” and all, as a way to warn him what he might be in for working under such a well-known white supremacist. But Williams was undeterred, went to meet with Helms, and ultimately got a position at WRAL, steering clear of Helms the station as much as possible.
“Clarence was something special back then, “ Dr. Bridges adds. “He still is.”
The rest is history. After telling WRAL that he was 16 (Clarence was actually 15, but knew he couldn’t get the position if he fessed up, so he got his grandmother to certify the required work permit), Williams began at the very bottom in Sept. 1966, learning enough to graduate to moving sets and lights, running cameras (color TVs were just making their debut) and sound, and eventually directing newscasts, public affairs programs, and sports shows.
“In 1967 when I started to work for WRAL-TV, Clarence Williams was all ready working for the company,” says Paul Pope, Jr., an African-American who worked for WRAL for 42 years before retiring as a CBC Vice President for Community Relations. “He welcomed me with open arms and he played a big part of my training. Clarence has paved the way for me and many others.”
During that time, Williams left his job, and St. Augustine’s College for two years from 1970-72 to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, and saw combat. When his tour ended, WRAL contacted him, and told him that his old job was waiting for him when he was ready.
Williams’ long career at WRAL-TV mirrors the evolution of television, going from black and white to color; satellite and microwave technology allowing for live broadcasts from not only around the country, but around the world; and ultimately to the historic move to high definition and digital transmission, which WRAL-TV pioneered.
“We grew. The technology changed. When I first got here some of the first color [TV] cameras we used were the size of a Volkswagen, “ Williams recalls. “And now you can find a lipstick camera. But it was all exciting to me because it was new to me.”
When Jim Goodmon, grandson of company founder A. J. Fletcher and an engineer by training, took over Capitol Broadcasting Co. in 1979 as president and CEO, he changed the culture of WRAL-TV, not only making it more community-friendly (especially to blacks, long put off by Jesse Helm’s racial rhetoric), but also making it an industry leader, investing in new technologies to improve newsgathering.
For instance, it was 1996 when the Federal Communications Commission granted the nation’s first experimental HDTV license to WRAL-TV, leading to that first HD new telecast in Oct. 2000. That meant Clarence Williams would grow with those changes, and indeed, over time, lead the station in implementing Goodmon’s pioneering vision.
“Jim Goodmon believed in diversity, and gave us opportunities that probably wouldn’t have existed otherwise,” Williams says.
“Companies are built around people like Clarence and he’s been a mainstay at WRAL-TV for nearly five decades,” CBC President/CEO Jim Goodmon told The Carolinian about Williams. “Clarence has contributed on any number of levels, but his people skills always made him stand out. He mentors new employees, volunteers in the community and regularly goes way beyond his regular production duties. Clarence is part of the TV-5 backbone and we’re going to miss him.”
Even former colleagues like Renee McCoy, currently communications director with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public School System, but was a popular morning and noon news anchor at WRAL during the 1980s, hailed Williams for his professionalism and friendship.
“Clarence was one of the pioneers in this industry who worked to set the standard for modern television broadcast production as we now know it,” McCoy said. “He had a vision that surpassed the norm and brought a quality that others could only emulate. It was always a pleasure to learn from Clarence because he always provided a level of wit and fun to the experience.”
There aren’t that many African-Americans who are television directors, but the name “Clarence Williams” means something to those who are, like Odessa Shaw, Jr., who retired recently after 25 years at Black Entertainment Television, WLFL-TV and WNCN-TV in Raleigh.
“Though I never got the opportunity to work with him, I've always enjoyed our many phone conversations,” Shaw recalls about Williams. “It was good to talk with someone who as a TV director of color, he knew what I was going through.”
Even in Southeast Raleigh that helped to nurture Clarence Williams, his legend at WRAL-TV is respected.
“It is amazing to me that Clarence has endured and celebrates his tenure with WRAL,” says friend and former Raleigh City Councilman Brad Thompson. “I can't imagine suffering the indignity of the Jesse Helms editorials and still being proud of the place I worked. Clarence made life better in Raleigh. He has earned his retirement.”
In May 2014, Williams, retired CBC executive Paul Pope, Jr. and another longtime WRAL-TV employee Leonard Peebles, all military veterans, went back for a 13-day visit to Vietnam to witness the dramatic changes there since they left over 40 years earlier.
In his spare time, Williams enjoys working with nonprofits, especially when it comes to helping those in need of food and vital essentials here, and in impoverished nations like Haiti. He hopes to travel to Africa one day, and back to Asia.
“I want to give something back because I’ve been very fortunate,” Williams says, crediting Capitol Broadcasting Co. with allowing him to work with nonprofits, and even contributing to his causes.
As his long tenure as a television pioneer comes to an end, Clarence Williams looks back and says, “It was sometimes challenging and frustrating, but it was also fun.”