Carol Williams retires after more than three decades at the anchor desk

'It just seemed like the time was right'

CINCINNATI -- It was Easter Sunday in 1993 when prisoners began a riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville 83 miles east of Cincinnati.

Tanya O'Rourke was a college student working for Channel 9, calling employees to ask who would come in to help cover the big story. Person after person refused until O'Rourke reached Carol Williams, the veteran anchor whose daughter was a baby at the time.

"It was Carol who answered the call and came in," O'Rourke said. "My respect for her grew enormously that day. And I learned from her that sometimes you just have to do these things."

Carol Williams

Williams has answered the call for more than 30 years as a lead anchor at WCPO - 9 On Your Side. She has been a steady voice of professionalism for our region's worst tragedies and most exciting celebrations. She interviewed two presidents -- Bill Clinton and Barack Obama -- and celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey. Williams even helped cover a Super Bowl that featured the Cincinnati Bengals. That alone tells you how long she has been a presence in the region.

But after more stories than she can count, Williams is signing off for the last time at the end of Channel 9's 6 o'clock newscast March 3.

RELATED: Carol Williams prepares to say goodbye

Her retirement comes after a year of working part-time at 9 On Your Side to ease the transition for her viewers -- and herself.

"It seemed like the time was right," said Williams, who joined the WCPO anchor desk in 1986 after working for a TV station in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for six years. "I look forward to the time that I can kind of just be in sync with the rest of the world."

Carol Williams interviews President Barack Obama.

It's a down-to-earth explanation from someone who has been larger than life for Tri-State viewers and her co-workers for more than a generation.

"She's been anchoring longer than I've been alive," said Griffin Frank, WCPO's 24-year-old 11 p.m. producer who considers Williams his "work mother." "It blows my mind."

Even more mind-blowing: Williams balanced her award-winning career with being a single mom for most of those years and still managed to come to work each day with a spring in her step and a smile on her face.

"She never has a bad attitude," Frank said. "It's always like, 'I'm happy to be here.'"

Staying grounded

Former colleagues who worked with Williams early in her tenure at WCPO echoed that sentiment.

"She's just a really sweet lady," said Pat Minarcin, the lead anchor for Channel 9's evening newscasts when Williams arrived. "I was a lightning rod in a lot of ways, and she was always there to keep me grounded and absorb some of the electricity."

As long and successful as Williams' television career has been, though, it took her a little time to decide that broadcast news was what she wanted to do.

A native of Laurel, Delaware, Williams majored in English literature at Duke University and then got a master's degree in education from Johns Hopkins University because she was thinking about becoming a teacher. She decided along the way to pursue journalism and went to Boston University to focus on TV news and get a master's degree there.

Before she finished her thesis, though, Williams began driving all through the south looking for a job. When she didn't get one immediately, she drove up and down the Atlantic Coast and ended up getting hired as a reporter at WGAL-TV in Lancaster.

Before long, she was helping with morning anchor duties. She quickly became the weekend anchor and was promoted to nighttime anchor within her first year at the station.

By the time she got the job at WCPO, Williams already had five years of experience as a lead anchor. In making the move to Cincinnati -- a much larger market -- she became one of the first women to consistently anchor the most prominent newscasts at the station, said Jeff Brogan, vice president and general manager of WCPO – 9 On Your Side.

Carol Williams with John Popovich, left, and Dennis Janson, right.

"Carol broke through a major barrier," Brogan said. "To come in and be one of the first in that important role and keep it for more than 30 years is quite an accomplishment."

And while she was significantly younger than her co-anchor, she immediately started pulling her weight as part of the team, Minarcin said.

"She also became kind of a mom," he said. "We needed somebody to keep us on the straight and narrow from time to time."

As Minarcin explained it, Bob Alan, the weatherman at the time, was a "grown-up Dennis the Menace." Dennis Janson was the sports anchor and a bit of a prankster himself.

"Carol just kind of came in, folded her arms, occasionally scowling in their direction, and everyone just kind of fell in line," he said.

Janson, who retired from anchoring sports for WCPO in 2013, said he couldn’t recall a single conflict with Williams in all the years they worked side by side.

Dennis Janson

"In an industry that is rife with egos and divas, Carol presented neither characteristic," he said. "I never had one difference of opinion with her. That's unheard of."

That's not to say Janson didn't give her ammunition.

'I can't keep doing this'

There was one time, years ago, when Janson decided to end of the 6 o'clock newscast with flatulence so loud it could be heard on the air. Williams and Clyde Gray were co-anchors at the time. As they recall it, Alan was the meteorologist. Janson insists that Pete Delkus was chief meteorologist at the time. (WCPO is scouring archives for the video.)

"Clyde arched his eyebrows, and Delkus went face down laughing," Janson said. "Carol's only response was, 'Oooh!' She looked over at me, and I just kept a straight face. Although anyone with a brain and two eyes could know who the fella was."

RELATED: This is what Carol had to say about that moment

Williams always has been the kind of person who could take a joke and dish one out, too, Gray said.

Steve Raleigh, right, Clyde Gray and Carol Williams share a laugh in 2014. Photo by Emily Maxwell | WCPO

"For me what distinguishes her is an approachability and an accessibility and a sharp wit," he said. "Carol has the ability to puncture pretension with a very sharp, dry wit, which she has used on me several times."

Just recently, in fact, Gray and Williams were texting back and forth about something, and she responded to him: "Oh, I see. Snarky as always," Gray recalled with a laugh. "I'm like, 'Oh wow. I guess I was kind of snarky.'"

But Williams also exudes warmth on air that her friends and colleagues say is completely genuine.

"Carol Williams had such a long, successful career at WCPO because she truly cared so much about the community, the station and her co-workers," Brogan said. "She was authentic and real, and I believe the audience recognized how much Carol cared about Cincinnati soon after she arrived."

Williams said it didn't take long for her to feel at home here.

She knew pretty soon after she moved from Lancaster that she wanted to put down roots, she said.

"I thought, 'I can't keep doing this,'" she said. "'I can't make new friends all over again.'"

She got married here and had her daughter, Katherine, in 1991, and life sort of took over, she said. She and her husband divorced when Katherine was 5, and Williams spent the bulk of her career here working to be the best journalist and the best single mom she could be.

Carol Williams with her daughter, Katherine, who was 3 or 4 at the time and dressed as Baby Bop.

She chalked up some of her longevity to luck.

"I think it has something to do with Cincinnati and me being fortunate to land in a place where I belonged," she said. "I think I'm kind of like Cincinnati. Kind of low key and nice. And I think most people would agree that Cincinnati is the kind of place where they embrace people if you're here long enough."

The 'unflappable' pro

But past and present colleagues argue that Williams' considerable talent and unwavering work ethic have played the biggest part in her success.

"She was just really good at what she did," said John Popovich, Channel 9's longtime sports director and anchor. "Good anchors, they make everybody look good, and they know something about everything. They're well versed. They read. They know what they're doing so they're not caught off guard."

John Popovich

WCPO -- 9 On Your Side News Director Chip Mahaney put it this way: "She's just unflappable on television. It's a really hard job. Some people make it look easy. And she would disagree with the notion of this, but I would say she makes it look easy."

RELATED: Popo: Carol Williams made us look good

She also has worked hard, always willing to learn new skills as the industry changed.

When WCPO started asking its reporters and anchors to shoot their own video, Williams accepted the challenge and worked on the weekends to finish her stories, Gray said.

"We were all wrestling with how to take a camera out in the field and videotape a story and then edit that story on a laptop when we got back to the newsroom," he said. "Carol worked very hard at that. She did a story about a farmer's market on a Saturday that was very well shot and very well edited."

Williams remembered that story, too. It was about Lunken Airport Farmers' Market, she said, and it was 90 degrees outside the day she reported it. She spent six hours one Saturday shooting the video and six hours on another Saturday editing it, she said, all while juggling motherhood.

Carol Williams, left, with her daughter Katherine at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.

"That was the hardest part, I think," she said. "I remember having a friend who said her daughter was sort of acting up and yelling at her, and her husband said, 'You can't talk to your mother like that.' And I thought, 'I don't have anybody to say that for me.'"

But if Williams ever struggled to balance her high-profile career and life at home, her daughter never saw it.

"I always did get the sense that I was the most important part of her life," said her daughter, Katherine Mahon, now 25 and living near Baltimore, Maryland. "At one point she actually did come to my school and speak about what it was like to work on the news, and I got to stand next to her. I was really proud."

Williams changed her schedule for five years when her daughter started school, taking a pay cut to leave the 11 o'clock news so she could be with Katherine in the evenings. She went back to the more prominent role after another co-anchor for Gray didn't work out, and Williams decided she needed to go back to the 11 o'clock newscast for her career, she said.

"She did a good job of not including me in her grown-up problems," Mahon said. "I really want her to understand that if she hadn't done her job the way she did and worked as hard as she has and set that example, I don't think I'd be where I am today in many respects. Seeing her do that has given me the work ethic to push forward."

The next chapter

Though Williams is retiring from WCPO, she doesn't plan to stop working.

She thinks of the coming months as a "gap year," she said, where she will take time to reflect on what she wants to do and how she can contribute.

She remarried in 2015. Her husband is federal judge Michael Barrett, and Williams is looking forward to spending more time with him.

She also wants to have the flexibility to travel to see her college roommate and visit her daughter. She can see herself taking a class or trying a new creative endeavor, such as painting or photography. And she wants to find more ways to give back to the community through volunteering.

RELATED: Carol Williams made a difference in our community

Williams recently started teaching a class at the University of Cincinnati called Writing for Media, and she enjoys that, too, she said. Colleagues said teaching is a great fit for Williams' talents and temperament.

"Whatever they're paying in tuition for that class," Gray said of her students, "they got a bargain."

Williams won't miss driving home at midnight after the 11 o'clock newscast, she said, or the unpredictability of breaking news.

But there are things she will be sad to leave about her job at WCPO. There are the people, of course. But it's more than that.

Carol Williams with some current and former Channel 9 coworkers.

"I think I will miss belonging to a place -- having that place to go to," she said. "I'll miss the newsroom. I'll miss walking in there. I'll miss being part of the rhythm of the day, walking in and seeing everybody and being part of that."

For all the years that Williams made it look almost effortless to be part of that rhythm, those close to her know how difficult it could be -- especially for a woman in TV news.

The power of a haircut

Viewers criticize clothes, makeup, jewelry and hair for women on television in a way that they almost never criticize men. Williams learned to deal with it years ago when the nasty comments came in stamped envelopes.

"When I got letters, I got to where I learned that the ones that had no return address probably weren't going to say anything nice," she said. "That kind of stuff just lives in your head, it really does. And those anonymous things are generally really, really mean. I think they come from people who just don't have much going on."

For all those years Williams kept on -- straightening her naturally curly hair and trading her glasses for contacts when she went on air -- knowing that no matter what the story, some viewers would be looking at her appearance more closely than they listened to her words.

Tanya O'Rourke

O'Rourke saw it in action on that Easter Sunday in 1993.

Williams arrived at the station, ready to tell Greater Cincinnati what was happening in Lucasville. She had just gotten her haircut -- going from long locks that she used to wear in French braids to a more modern, layered style.

As soon as Williams went on air, the switchboard at Channel 9 "lit up like a Christmas tree," O'Rourke said.

"Every phone call was about Carol's hair," she said.

Never mind the fact that the Lucasville prison riot became one of the longest and deadliest in U.S. history.

"Nobody cared that there was a riot happening," O'Rourke said. "They cared that Carol Williams had cut her hair."

But just like she always did, Williams worked through the criticism and persevered to tell that story and many thousands more.

Carol Williams, left, with her daughter, Katherine Mahon.

From her first day on air, she helped set the tone for WCPO as a journalist, role model and mentor, especially for women in the industry.

"I'm going to miss this person that I respect as a professional but who I love as a friend and who has always been a mentor and a guide for me," O'Rourke said. "Someone who has never pushed me down but instead helped lift me up. That's hard to come by in this business."

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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