Small town boy Rickie David Willis ’75 makes good, does good

The first in his immediate family to graduate from college, Rickie David Willis ’75, the only son of two Carlton Yarn Mill textile workers in Cherryville, North Carolina (pop. 5,760), built a 50-year career in radio and television at stations throughout the country, spending the last half of his career as a news executive in the Triangle area of his native state.

In 2017, Willis retired as news director of what is now Spectrum News North Carolina in Raleigh. He and his wife, Joy, spent a lot of time the first year after his retirement “taking care of our adult responsibilities before we began our second childhood,” as he put it.

One result of that planning is the Rickie David & Joy P. Willis Scholarship Fund. The fund will help students attend the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, particularly qualified community college students who want to transfer to Carolina but could use some financial assistance. It’s the type of support that Willis himself benefited from as a student in the early ’70s. He and his wife are paying it forward, in a very generous way.

Willis’ wife, a medical technologist, asked to stay in the background here — but she’s integral to this story.

“Joy has been the driver of most of our financial planning,” Willis said. “She did a fabulous job.”

The Willis’ have arranged, through their estate, to leave a seven-figure gift to support deserving Hussman School students into perpetuity.

“What better legacy to leave behind than something that will benefit an individual who can then go on to benefit society as a whole, by working in journalism,” Willis said.

Cherryville dreams

Willis’ hometown is in northwestern Gaston County, an hour’s drive from Charlotte. He remembers the Carolina Freight trucks rumbling up and down neighborhood highways when he was a kid, before that company — founded in 1932 in Cherryville — moved out of town in 1995.

An only child, he was mesmerized by media.

“I grew up talking into a broomstick, because I wanted to be in radio and television,” he laughed.

Childhood friend Wendy Heavner Maddox used to play Beatles 45-rpm records on her red-and-white record player while Willis played DJ. 

”I would put the records on and Rick would talk. He'd tell something about the song and a little bit about the artist,” Heavner Maddox remembered. ”Even as a kid, he had a gift. He was a natural.”

At age 13, Willis spotted a story in the local weekly detailing the 500-watt daytime radio station license Hussman School alumnus Don Curtis and local partner Kenneth Beam had procured. Willis promptly wrote Beam a letter expressing his interest in working for WCSL 1590 AM radio.

After an interview with Beam, wherein the young teen confirmed it was he and not his mother who’d penned the letter, Willis was hired — providing he could study and pass an exam based on the weighty FCC third-class radio-telephone operator’s license users manual.

”I studied that bad boy from front to back,” said Willis.

He was one of three people who passed that day’s exam, and got the job.

“We never would’ve hired him if we’d known he was 13 years old,” Curtis said recently with a laugh.

Luckily for the tall teen with a deep voice, he looked (and sounded) older than his age.

It was the start of a half-century career in media.

By his junior year in high school, Willis was awake at 4:30 a.m. to get ready for his day, alongside his parents. They left home for the early shift at the mill, and he headed to the radio station before school, where he would sign on the air every Monday through Friday morning and come back after school to put together a local evening newscast. He thrived under the pressure of his action-packed schedule, energized by everything he was learning in school and at the station.

On the air every day, Willis became enough of a local celebrity that he was asked to serve as master of ceremonies for the Miss Golden Hours Pageant, nearby Bessemer City High School’s annual yearbook fundraising project. That’s where he met the high school’s yearbook editor, now his wife of 42 years.

College-bound

In 1971, Willis applied for a scholarship that would allow him to come to Carolina to major in what was then the Radio, Television and Motion Pictures (RTVMP) department, now the broadcast and electronic journalism specialization within the Hussman School.

He came in second, and did not get the scholarship. Undeterred, Willis attended Gaston College from home, and continued working at the radio station for two years, saving up his money and keeping up his grades so that he could afford to transfer to Carolina in his junior year.

Good news awaited him when he got to Chapel Hill in 1973. During student orientation, Willis remembered a Dr. Wesley Wallace announcing that the Jefferson-Standard Scholarship recipient had decided not to return to school.

“Alarm bells went off in my head,” Willis said.

“At the end of that orientation meeting, I said ‘Dr. Wallace, I came in second for that scholarship. What happens to that money?’ And he said ‘See me in the office tomorrow morning.’

“So I got a full scholarship from Jefferson-Standard for those two years, my junior and senior year. I had saved my money and would have been able to pay for college myself, but that gift gave me freedom after graduation where I didn’t have to start from scratch.”

Radio, Television and Motion Pictures at Carolina

Rickie David Wilis, 1971Willis took to Carolina like a duck to water.

Journalism student Ken Eudy ’75 remembered Willis working the audio booth control board at Carolina as a high school senior during a statewide student workshop on campus, setting the audiotape cartridge into the playback machine and introducing a public service announcement via “slip cue” — deftly holding the spinning turntable and releasing it to start on cue. Willis remembers it, too.

“Professor William Melson said, ‘You’ve done this before, haven’t you?’ And asked me to demo the rest of the studio,” Willis remembered.

“He knew more than any of us,” Eudy noted. “And he liked to show it,” the competitive former classmate joked.

The two became Carolina classmates and eventually landed in Charlotte after graduation, where Willis reported for WAYS Radio 610 AM before becoming managing editor at WCNC-TV, Charlotte’s NBC affiliate. Eudy — who went on to found public relations firm Capstrat in Raleigh, and now acts as senior adviser to North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper — was shooting stories for the local CBS affiliate with a shoulder-held CP16 camera in those days, often ferrying Raleigh footage out to RDU Airport to air freight it back to Charlotte for the 6 o’clock news.

“Rick was always a good competitor,” said Eudy. “My hat’s off to him for what he and his wife have done.”

“We did seven television stations in 10 years”

In Charlotte, Willis sat beside the producer of WCNC’s 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts and learned about television production “by osmosis.” When the news department folded in 1982, he was ready — he headed to WLWT-TV in Cincinnati, Ohio, as the assistant news director for that television station. His work there included preparing native son Jerry Springer to be a news anchor. They ended up in Ethiopia together on a 1985 story on Cincinnati drought and famine relief efforts there, which they followed up with a Sudan-based story that won an Emmy.

“That was one of only a couple of times in my career I felt like we captured lightening in a bottle,” Willis said. “We were doing some good journalism. The station was spending money. We had a great anchor team. In six months, we went from third place to first place in the ratings. It was a great experience.”

His work in Cincinnati led to an offer from KPRC-TV in Houston, Texas — to this day a top-10 television market — as executive producer; which in turn led to an opportunity to launch ABC-affiliate KSPR-TV’s news programming in Springfield, Missouri, a sought-after promotion to news director.

Willis emphasized that he had learned from every news director along the way, telling a story he first heard from his news director in Cincinnati.

“You know, a good newscast is like a symphony,” Willis recalled Tom Kuelbs’ simile. “It has a strong opening [hums the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony]. During the course of the program, you take the viewer by the hand and take them through the ups and downs of the newscast. At the end, you want a big finish [gestures, cymbals and drums crashing], so that they remember and feel good about the experience.”

When the economy turned and the Springfield station downsized staff, Willis offered to do the downsizing and then “downsize myself,” as he put it. He found another ”lightning in a bottle” opportunity as executive producer of KSTP-TV in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and followed that with a stint as news director at WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which ended badly.

”We did seven television stations in 10 years,” Willis said of he and his wife’s moves across the nation, looking back fondly on almost all of that time. “And everyone needs to be fired at least once in their lifetime. It makes you humble.”

Baton Rouge was a sobering experience, but it brought he and Joy back to North Carolina.

Homeward-bound

Hussman School adjunct faculty member Lee Meredith hired Willis as executive producer at WTVD in 1993, when Meredith was news director at the Durham-based ABC-affiliate. It was the start of an eight-year stint for Willis, and a homecoming of sorts.

“I drove in the first day and — because I went to school here [in Chapel Hill] — I recognized the street signs," Willis said. "It all felt very familiar, and very welcoming. Like coming home.”

Meredith recalled, ”I’d met him at industry conferences and thought the world of him. Really a fabulous guy. When we had an opening for an executive producer, I knew that he was from North Carolina. It was a great opportunity to get him back in his home state.”

“He had a very good grasp of journalism,” Meredith went on. ”But more than that, he was just great at guiding the ship. Not in a heavy-handed way but in a directed way, without letting a lot of other people get rattled.”

In 2001, Willis got a call asking if he’d like to help build a 24-hour news channel in Raleigh as news director.

After three dinner meetings with the newly-hired News 14 Carolina [now Spectrum News] general manager, Alan Mason, Willis accepted the challenge, and ended up directing the fledgling news team — the station launched in 2002— for 16 years.

Rickie David Wiliis ’75 as news director at Time Warner Cable in Raleigh.

When his assistant, Walker Campbell, nominated Willis for recognition as RTDNAC News Director of the Year on the cusp of Willis’ retirement, Campbell called out Willis’ dedication to young journalism professionals. Willis received the award nine days after his retirement.

“I believe Rick’s biggest achievements have come from his commitment to help our young staff become better journalists.” Campbell wrote. “Since our launch in 2002, Rick has guided, coached and mentored dozens of reporters, producers, assignment editors, photographers and anchors to be better at their jobs.”

Paying it forward

Rickie David Willis has continued that commitment to bettering journalism for future generations.

“Rickie is a Broadcaster’s Broadcaster,” said Dean Susan King. “He has traveled the country working in radio and TV stations where he could follow his dream of bringing news to communities. What he learned at Chapel Hill has kept citizens informed and communities vibrant. We are so lucky that his last jobs brought him back to his home state and the Triangle community. The passion that Rickie has for broadcasting and journalism will live on in young journalists of tomorrow, who like him learn core values here at the school.”

In a letter the Willis’ intend for each recipient of their scholarship to receive, he explained that his parents dropped out of school to work a combined 98 years at the mill, and that Joy’s father was a minister and a high school teacher. Because they had no children of their own, he explained, they chose to leave behind a living memorial to assist students from economic circumstances similar to their own.

“I graduated from UNC in 1975 with a degree in Radio, Television and Motion Pictures,” Willis wrote. “I went on to a career in local television and radio that took me to many parts of this country and the world. It was a rewarding life. I hope this gift allows you the opportunity to do the same.”

”You are on the verge of experiencing some of the most memorable years of your life at Carolina. Work hard but make time to enjoy the journey. I wish you a good life.”