It was one o’clock in the morning, and there she was, standing in a bathrobe just beyond the flames of a burning mound of marijuana. Not a single deputy was surprised. In fact, it would have come as a shock if Vinnie Williams had not arrived with a camera and steno pad to document the destruction of illegal drugs.
After all, she was glued to the police scanner, said Bill Mayberry, who served as coroner of Oconee County in the mid-1980s when Williams became publisher of The Oconee Enterprise.
“She had an unique way of spreading her legs to snap a picture,” recalled Bob Marable. “Instead of simply bending at the knees to lower her eye level, she would put her left leg straight out in front of her and the right leg straight back behind her. She then looked like an amateur runner in position to start a foot race.”
Williams’ peculiar stance may have garnered a few chuckles, but Mayberry believes her presence at drug busts and robberies kept deputies on their best behavior.
As an intrepid reporter at The McDuffie Progress, Williams rode along with Sheriff William Swan as he raided moonshine distillery stills.
“He had always hated the press, but he determined that it was better to let her in than to fight her,” said Layne Francis, daughter of the late sheriff. “They became really close.”
“If you were the sheriff, you made time to talk to Miss Vinnie,” said Oconee Sheriff Scott Berry, who would compare how often his name appeared in print with former art gallery owner Peggy Holcomb.
“That was how you knew you were on the A-list,” said Holcomb. Citizen Jesse Johnson learned that a casual chat with Williams was always on-the-record.
“She asked if I was dating anyone,” he recalled. “And then the next week, it was in the paper that I was off the market.”
Johnson once asked Williams about the secret to her longevity, to which she replied that she had her cats’ fur to cry into. However, tears were a rare phenomenon for Williams, who was the furthest thing from thin-skinned.
“Miss Vinnie was someone who was not afraid to whack a hornet’s nest and then stand without running and let them sting her,” said friend Bill McGraw.
“For all her cat-loving antics, she was anything but soft,” Berry said. “She was a tough woman, hard as woodpecker lips and unafraid of whatever the consequences might be. You could pull your advertising, drop your subscription and yell at her in person or over the phone, and the paper kept on printing.”
Former Editor Blake Giles said that although Williams was in her late 80s by the time they met, she “wielded the powers of Superman.”
Bishop resident Charley Brooks, who freelanced stories for The Enterprise, said Williams “was the strongest woman who ever moved through Oconee.”
Erik Schmidt, former sports editor, said Williams would stand “toe-to-toe with whomever, whenever, shrugging off critics and meeting her next deadline.”
“We didn’t always agree, but journalists shouldn’t always agree with elected officials,” said Oconee County Commissioner Chuck Horton, commending Williams for always having her finger on the pulse of the community.
“She shot from the hip and told it like it is, not meaning to hurt anyone’s feelings on purpose but was truthful in her writing,” said former Elections Superintendent Pat Hayes. “If you said it, she wrote it.”
Even in her 90s, Williams was a frequent visitor of the Oconee County Courthouse. She’d greet county employees as “hon” or “darlin’” or say, “hello, beautiful ladies” to the Elections Office staff.
Williams fawned over firefighters, describing them as “handsome, strapping young men.”
When she wasn’t chasing a crime lead sporting a bathrobe, Williams was “dressed to the hilt,” said Berry.
The other time Williams wasn’t in full feather was when she arrived at the office late at night in blue pajamas, a robe and slippers to smoke out an insurgency. Several employees who were working on a competing newspaper were fired on the spot.
“Vinnie and I were so-called social enemies in the beginning,” said Kate McDaniel, explaining that she was on the board of a competing newspaper until it went defunct.
“I went to Vinnie and asked her forgiveness, and we became good friends,” said McDaniel.
A few months later, Williams asked McDaniel to pen a column for The Enterprise. After a year, Williams bluntly proclaimed that the column was getting a little stale. Even though the column came to an end, their friendship endured.
Former Advertising Director Cathe Stein remembers Williams typing away on an old manual Royal typewriter. Employees later heard her “banging away on her keyboard, a tornado of clickety-clacking,” Schmidt recalled. In her last decade of life, the clicking was just as audible as the curse words she hurled at her computer.
“Alas, her typing skills did not always keep pace, but that’s what proofreaders are for,” Giles said.
Former Editor Joe Feeney said Williams begrudgingly gave him permission to polish her stories, but it was often a tense back-and-forth.
“I remember her being very tough,” said Feeney. “She always stuck to her guns, and she had an old-school way of reporting.”
When Williams hired Steven Colquitt as sports editor, he was amazed by the many hats she wore: reporter, photographer, columnist, paginator, circulation manager, editor and publisher.
“The work ethic she had was contagious on the rest of us,” said Colquitt. “She worked late at night and was the first one in the next day.”
“She was certainly one-of-a-kind who combined southern charm with the steely-nerved mindset of an old fashioned reporter,” said Robert M Williams Jr., retired publisher of The Blackshear Times. “She came along at a time when it was not easy for women in journalism, and it was not easy to be a good reporter in a small town.”
Mike Buffington, co-publisher of MainStreet Newspapers, described Williams as an “icon of North Georgia newspapering.”
“She carved a new path,” he said. “She was someone female editors would look up to as an example of what somebody can do, particularly in her era when women were not allowed to be leaders in newsrooms and were stuck in the feature section.”
Carole Ludwig, whose veterinary practice shared building space with The Enterprise, wrongly assumed that a female publisher was merely a figurehead of the paper’s operation.
“That assessment was certainly off the mark,” Ludwig said. “She was never seen in public without her hair properly coiffed, her make-up carefully applied, and in clothes correct for the occasion. That persona disguised a determined will, a sharp intellect and a keen business sense.”
Flagpole Publisher Pete McCommons, who recruited Williams as editor of The Oconee Enterprise when she was 61 years old, said she was an excellent writer and novelist and an ardent researcher. Five years later, in 1986, Williams bought the newspaper.
“Before then, the paper had gone through numerous editors,” recalled Amrey Harden, former mayor of Watkinsville and former president of Oconee State Bank. “Each one had a different style, but when Miss Vinnie arrived, she put her mark on the paper and served it well over these last couple decades.”
“When most people are thinking of retirement, she was thinking about a new career that lasted almost 40 years,” said Billy Chism, retired editor and publisher of the White County News.
“She was young looking and so vibrant in her 60s at the time she purchased the paper,” said friend Jimmy Christopher. “I was impressed by how vibrant and how much energy she had later in life.”
“I’m nearing the age of 60, and it still gives me hope to do something interesting or extraordinary in the years ahead,” said friend Lisa Douglas.
Douglas is submitting one of Williams’ stories about Douglas’ farm, which had a 19th century horse racetrack and fairgrounds, in an application to place her homestead on the National Historic Register of Historic Places.
“Even though she wasn’t an Oconee native, she became part of the fabric of Oconee County,” said Georgia Forestry Commission Director Chuck Williams.
Friend Zoe Gattie called Williams “a community-driven soul.”
“She was a remarkable woman who really believed in giving back to her community, especially us farmers and first responders,” said dairy farmer Albert Hale.
“Firefighters, first responders, law enforcement and individuals who help protect us—those were the people she had a special place in her heart for,” said former Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis.
Oconee Fire Rescue Chief Bruce Thaxton remembers how Williams called every station chief each Monday to get the skinny on the previous week’s fires and emergency calls.
Williams was a strong advocate of the volunteer fire department on the editorial page and was the benefactor of the Oconee Fire Rescue appreciation banquet for more than 20 years.
She was also a founding member of the Oconee County Veterans Memorial Foundation, and she provided the spark for the Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation.
“She was always writing articles on us and promoting Happy Valley Pottery,” said potter Kathy Chappelle.
“Miss Vinnie made an observation about artists in the community, and making observations is what a good journalist does,” said former OCAF Board Chairman Amrey Harden.
“She was a huge supporter of my gallery and a big supporter of downtown Watkinsville,” said Holcomb.
Gov. Brian Kemp described Williams as a pillar of Oconee County and a pioneer in her field.
Chuck Williams admired how she found a balance for soft news and hard news, covering both Little League games and politics or crime stories.
Developer Mike Power, who would run into Williams at government meetings, said he admired her drive and insight. Farmland preservationist Russ Page said he and Williams were often the only citizens at Board of Commissioners meetings.
“We always sat together and had discussions about what was going on,” he said. “Even later when other citizens started attending the meetings, we would save each other a seat. It didn’t matter that we didn’t always feel the same about a given topic, because we always felt the same about each other.”
Retired journalism professor Lee Becker said he admired how Williams was devoted to local news coverage.
North High Shoals Councilwoman Violet Dawe recalled how Williams may have gotten lost on her way to a late-night meeting, but she never lost interest in a town of less than 700 people. In fact, in her mid-90s, Williams wrote a magazine story about the history of the town. The story became the cover of the spring 2015 issue of Oconee The Magazine.
“Most local papers are half-filled with syndicated stuff, but The Enterprise has always been about local stories,” said friend Tom Little, who added that he was always nice to “the woman who bought the ink.”
Patrick Beall, former mayor of Bogart, said Williams took the small-town council seriously but given her sense of humor, she was probably “chuckling a little bit at some of our antics.”
Bishop resident Nedra Johnson said she would have loved a comic roast, in which people exchange wisecracks about Williams’ own antics.
“I have a memory of reading a story about an armed robbery, and several times in the story she had several quotes attributed to me,” recalled Sheriff Scott Berry. “The only downside to reading those quotes was that I had no memory at all of talking to her about that case. I asked her about it the next time I saw her, and she said my quotes ‘sounded like something I would have said.”
Giles said citizens knew they were special if Williams “invented some quotes to make you sound better.”
Regardless of whether quotes were word-for-word or embellished, Williams perfectly summed things up and told it like it is, said Mayberry.
“Vinnie was our community conscience, always serving with courage and conviction,” said Oconee Board of Education Chairman Tom Odom.
Jim Alexander, who often exchanged stories with Williams at Krimson Kafe, described her as “the light of Watkinsville.”
Carey Williams Jr., editor and publisher of The Herald-Journal in Greensboro, said Williams opened doors for a lot of people.
“All throughout my life, Miss Williams has been an inspiration for me,” said community leader and activist Marvin Nunnally. “She always encouraged me and said the sky is the limit.”
Williams also had a tremendous influence on employees who left the newspaper industry.
Jonathan Jones, former IT specialist at The Enterprise who was hired through a high school work-based learning program, said he modeled Williams’ work ethic when he became the 911 operations coordinator at the Athens-Clarke County Police Department.
Jay Hanley, a former production assistant at The Enterprise, said Williams never missed a birthday or celebratory occasion.
“She was a political supporter of mine in my runs for office, even though I am a Republican, and she was a Democrat,” he said. Hanley would drive Williams home each day and was amused by how much she loved Little Debbie pecan rolls when they’d stop for a snack.
Beverly Rodgers, a childhood friend of Williams’ daughter, Maridee, remembers Williams as a Girl Scout leader who taught the girls how to make camp fires and cook fried eggs on tin can bottoms.
Many people looked forward to Williams’ handwritten letters.
“Miss Vinnie always wrote me the kindest notes,” said Enterprise Advertising Representative Tracy Harmon. “In one of my birthday cards one year, she wrote me, ‘May the sun always shine upon you and the moon kiss your cheek.’”
Often, cards would have a picture of an adorable kitten or a cat in a mischievous pose.
Sarah Thuerk, a former reporter at The Enterprise, said she can’t reflect on Williams without thinking about her love for cats.
“When I came in for the interview, one of the cats that lived outside the office was hiding underneath The Enterprise van, and Miss Vinnie was crouched down trying to coax this cat out.”
Indeed, Williams and her cats were inseparable, both at the office and at home.
“She was welcomed by all the animals she rescued and babied liked children,” said Margaret Hale, a former county commissioner. “Her cats met her at the gate.”