Harold A. Williams, 85, Sun reporter, editor

February 25, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien and Jacques Kelly | Dennis O'Brien and Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Harold A. Williams, a Sun reporter and editor for nearly 40 years whose books included an authoritative history of the Baltimore Fire, died yesterday at Greater Baltimore Medical Center after complications from a fall.

He was 85 and had lived at the Blakehurst Retirement Community in Towson for the past two years.

"He was smooth, friendly and good-humored. He was the kind of guy who could get a joke as well as tell a joke." said James Bready, a book columnist who worked with Mr. Williams and wrote for The Sun Magazine.

Mr. Williams first joined The Sun in 1940, but left after a stint on the rewrite desk to serve as an Army counterintelligence officer during World War II. He was based in San Francisco to help with security when the United Nations was founded there.

After the war he returned to the Sunpapers, where he worked as a feature writer and a member of the Evening Sun city staff, and was occasionally given overseas assignments. He also wrote eight books.

But he is perhaps best remembered as editor of The Sunday Sun and The Sun Magazine, positions he held from 1954 to 1979.

As editor of The Sunday Sun, Mr. Williams oversaw a staff of about 20 writers, photographers and editors who occupied offices on the Sun's fifth floor.

"The Sunday Sun was a real domain of its own and Hal was its commanding officer," Mr. Bready said.

The magazine, known as "the brown section" because of the brown tint created by the printing process that produced it, attracted some of the Sunpapers' best writers and photographers.

"He loved Maryland history and he loved stories that were intensely local," said Ernest Imhoff, a former editor for The Evening Sun and The Sun who occasionally wrote for the magazine.

William F. Schmick Jr., who as president of A.S. Abell Co. headed the Sunpapers for 18 years, credited Mr. Williams with attracting and maintaining a high-quality staff.

"He ran his department extremely well and was highly respected," said Mr. Schmick, who retired in 1978. "He was fair to his people and was just a great guy."

When the Sunpapers were reorganized in 1979, Mr. Williams became one of three assistant manager editors and was assigned to oversee the features department. He retired in 1981.

"He was really one of the best editors I've ever known," said John Plunkett, who was named an assistant managing editor as part of the same reorganization. "He was very thoughtful about the stories he assigned and the play the stories were given."

Mr. Williams' books included a history of The Sun, published to mark its 150th anniversary in 1987. He also wrote a guide to Baltimore and Annapolis in 1957 and a book about Sun photographer A. Aubrey Bodine in 1971.

His book Baltimore Afire was published in 1954 to commemorate the Feb. 7, 1904 fire that raged for two days and destroyed downtown Baltimore.

After Mr. Williams retired, he conducted tours of city on the anniversary of the fire and was much in demand as a lecturer on the fire and other historical topics.

"He was the pre-eminent historian of the Great Baltimore Fire," said Stephen Heaver, president and curator of the Fire Museum of Maryland in Lutherville.

In retirement, Mr. Williams also wrote and edited the Blakehurst Banner, a community newsletter, taught journalism at Towson University and memoir writing at the College of Notre Dame

He collected books and was a member of Baltimore Bibliophiles, a book collectors group. He also was a member of Hamilton Street Club; the Maryland Historical Society; the Mencken Society; Friends of the Libraries at Johns Hopkins University; and the Geezers Club, a group of Sunpapers newsroom alumni.

Born in Milwaukee, and raised in Cumberland, he was a graduate of Calvert Hall College high school in Baltimore and earned a bachelor's degree from Notre Dame University, where worked on the college newspaper.

A memorial Mass will be offered Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Franciscan Youth Center, 2209 Greenmount Ave., Baltimore 21218, Attention: Sandy McFadden.

He is survived by his wife of 60 years, the former Ruth Edna Smith; four daughters, Anne M. Gibson of Baltimore, Mary Helen Williams of Orono, Maine, Sara Brooke Cherner of Potomac and Julie Carey Bruggman of Baltimore; a brother, Robert Williams of Baltimore; a sister, Mary Helen Doyle of Baltimore; and eight grandchildren.

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