Doug Willis, who followed Ronald Reagan from the governor’s office to the presidential campaign trail and covered Jerry Brown’s first stint as governor during a three-decade career writing about California politics for The Associated Press, has died. He was 77.
He died Tuesday night at a hospital in Sacramento from complications following hip surgery, said his wife, Judy. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about three years ago and had been living in a memory-care home since summer, she said.
Judy Willis said it was especially sad that her husband suffered from dementia because he had such a quick wit, nimble mind and fail-safe memory throughout his journalism career and their 22-year marriage.
“Somebody once called him a walking encyclopedia,” she said. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking.”
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Indeed, Willis was something of an anomaly in a profession notorious for its aversion to math: He had won a full-ride engineering scholarship to Stanford before getting bored with that major and switching to journalism.
Colleagues recalled him as a congenial but fierce competitor who never forgot a fact or let sources off the hook.
“He didn’t give up. He would get his question answered,” said Rebecca LaVally, a California State University, Sacramento communications lecturer who was a reporter and manager in the state capital for the competing wire service, United Press International, during the 1970s and 1980s.
She described Willis as determined, cordial, tenacious – and a bit rumpled.
“He didn’t try to be showy or flashy,” she said.
Willis started with the AP in San Francisco in 1969 after beginning his career as a police and general assignment reporter for the old San Jose News and a brief stint as an editor for a newspaper in Bend, Ore.
A year later, he was offered a temporary job helping the AP’s Sacramento bureau cover the Legislature and did so well he was invited back the following year, when his assignment in the capital became permanent. He became correspondent, the bureau’s top position, in 1974.
In a memoir written a decade after he retired, Willis recalled his first big scoop as a young reporter covering state government, one that relied on his analytical skills: Piecing together various threads of information, he was able to say how much state taxpayers were shelling out for each trip then-Gov. Ronald Reagan took in a leased private plane. Willis said his reporting on the cost every time Reagan flew to an event “annoyed both Reagan and my press corps rivals for the next three years.”
Willis covered Reagan’s last term as California governor and his two runs for the Republican nomination for president, in 1975-76 and 1979-80. He also was the AP’s lead reporter covering another famous California governor with presidential aspirations.
In his memoir, Willis described the abrupt transition from Reagan to Brown, who was 36 years old when he stepped into the governor’s office the first time in 1975.
The buttoned-down formality of the Reagan years transitioned to an administration populated with Buddhist monks and former astronauts, Willis wrote. Reporters covering Brown in his current stint as governor would recognize some of Willis’ successful techniques in getting the famously hard-to-nail-down governor to talk.
“Forget the press office,” Willis wrote in his memoir. “Just catch up with Brown anyplace where there weren’t a lot of people around to distract him, and just start asking questions. Once he was talking, if he started to lose interest and cut off an interview, I would just repeat one of his points back to him, but in a slightly inaccurate way. It always worked. He would stick with me until he was absolutely certain that I understood.”
No reporter had better access to Brown than Willis, said Chuck McFadden, who was an AP reporter in Sacramento from 1970 to 1974.
“Jerry admired people with brains, and Doug had a super abundance of brains,” he said.
It was Willis who in March 1976 dictated the urgent news that Brown would run for the Democratic nomination for president, calling it in to the AP’s San Francisco bureau from the governor’s office and beating rival UPI by 35 minutes. Willis wrote that the governor hovered over his shoulder as he made the call and offered suggestions about what the story should say, “which I ignored.”
An only child, Willis was born April 16, 1938, in Oakland and was raised by his mother and grandmother. His father died during World War II, shot down in the Pacific while serving in the Army Air Corps.
Judy Willis said her husband never regretted changing majors from engineering to journalism. Rather, he fed off the excitement of being present at some of the biggest events of the day.
Willis was one of four AP staffers covering President Gerald Ford’s visit to Sacramento in 1975 when Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme tried to shoot the president as he walked toward the Capitol. In addition to covering politics, he wrote about Cesar Chavez’s farmworker strikes, got a jailhouse interview with mass murderer Juan Corona and helped cover one of the biggest tragedies in Sacramento history, when a fighter jet crashed into Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor during an air show in 1972, killing 25.
He even smoked cigars and drank rum with Fidel Castro during a reporting assignment to Cuba in the 1980s.
“He led a good life in Sacramento, and it was immensely gratifying for him,” McFadden said. “It had to be gratifying to be a major political reporter in a state as big as California.”