‘God had brought me to Oconee County for a reason’

Feb 26, 2015

By Marie DeWitt Williams
As told by Vinnie Williams

WATKINSVILLE, GA—On a warm afternoon in March 1989, the publisher and editor of The Oconee Enterprise, Vinnie Williams, was escorted from the U.S. Courthouse in Athens, GA, by FBI Agent David Bernal. They passed through a silent unhappy crowd that had just heard the unbelievable news:

One of their own, the young Oconee County sheriff, had just been sentenced to a year in federal prison for violating a man’s civil rights. His case had been covered by the news media, including The Oconee Enterprise. So was the verdict.

When she returned to the weekly’s office in Watkinsville, the phone calls and letters began. Subscriptions were cancelled, many with requests for money to be returned. Advertising was pulled or rejected.

During the following years, two alternate weeklies were begun against The Oconee Enterprise, the county’s legal organ since 1884. The announced intent was: “Let’s break The Oconee Enterprise.” One weekly lasted four months, the second three years.

The Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune later picked up the story and published it across America.

This period nearly wrecked The Oconee Enterprise and the paper’s new publisher, who had bought it in 1986 when she was 66 years old.

In 2014, when she was 94 years old and working at the weekly five days a week—she wrote four columns, editorials, and articles for the weekly as well as “Oconee the Magazine”—she visited the courthouse weekly to compile land sales and property swaps.

She was asked, “How did you make it through those early years?” She answered, “I didn’t have anywhere else to go. And I thought, God had brought me to Oconee County for a reason.”

The publisher had been a successful short story writer, a best-selling novelist, and freelanced for two city newspapers. She was also a reporter for The McDuffie [County] Progress in Thomson, GA.

Two of her four novels were best sellers. “The Fruit Tramp,” published by Harper and Row in 1957, was a Readers Digest Condensed Book selection. The second was “Walk Egypt,” published by Viking in 1961, which was a Book of the Month selection.

Two novels followed: “I Resign You Stallion” and “Greenbones.” They were less successful and she made the decision to return to newspaper work, which she had always loved. “Because,” she said, “I didn’t want to repeat failures.”

During her 15 minutes of fame, she was asked for her biography and said she was born near Charleston, SC, that her maiden name was Ahlsweh (Swedish) and she was Friday’s Child.

Her parents moved to St. Petersburg, FL, in 1934, and she attended high school where she met her future husband, Roy Williams. In 1937, she entered Florida State College for Women, now Florida State University, and majored in journalism. Dr. Earl Vance advised his classes, “Get majors in library science, education, or social work. Jobs on newspapers are scarce for women.” When asked, “Then why do you teach journalism?” he replied, “Because times will change.”

They did. But in the interim, she did welfare work for the state of Florida. After World War II broke out in 1941, the male editor and general assignment reporter of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune entered the armed services. The society editor became editor, and she became the reporter.

 “It was the best two years of my life,” she recalls. “I covered crime and the courts, the Ringling Brothers Circus winter quarters and even wrestling matches. And I met the one man that I ever loved.”

The war wound down, the man she loved was killed during its last days, and the editor and reporter returned to the paper. She and the interim editor were terminated.

The double blow nearly destroyed her. Returning to her parents in St. Petersburg, she described herself as “an emotional basket case.”

Roy Williams reappeared in her life. After an interlude—he tried going into business for himself—but then he reentered the armed forces. Her parents urged that she marry him.

At first they were posted on the eastern seaboard including Ft. Monmouth, N.J. This let her visit her family in Florida and the last of her kin in New Jersey. Then they were deployed to Hawaii, where their daughter, Maridee, was born. 

It was during this period that she began writing every day, selling short stories and trying novels. After three years the family returned to the mainland—California, then to Ft. Gordon, GA.

Then her husband, now a master sergeant in the signal corps, was sent to Korea, Vietnam and Alaska. During this time, she published her novels and freelanced. 

In 1972, her husband retired but returned to Ft. Gordon as a civilian employee. In 1978, he had a massive stroke and died shortly before Christmas.

During the next two years, she continued working for the Augusta Chronicle. The Atlanta Journal had merged with the Atlanta Constitution and did not employ freelancers.

In 1981, tired and depressed, she resigned from the Augusta Chronicle. Two weeks later, she was offered the job as editor of The Oconee Enterprise.

It was a new challenge, and it was a new life.

Driving around Oconee County, she had noticed and interviewed the artisans scattered over the countryside: potters, glassblowers, weavers, metal workers, wood carvers. Many were congregated in Happy Valley, a commune-incubator for artists owned by Jerry and Kathy Chappelle.

A guild was suggested, and shortly after, the Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation was organized. The Oconee Enterprise supported this venture and now has one of the largest private art collections around.

Always close to her heart were veterans because her father was a World War I veteran and her daughter’s friends were killed in Vietnam, along with her own loss during World War II. And there were those continuing to die in Iraq and Afghanistan.

She was named Marquis Who’s Who in America in 2004 and to the Gold Club of the Georgia Press Association for 50 years in journalism.

A veterans memorial was suggested, and she became a founding member of the Oconee County Veterans Memorial Foundation. A unique and beautiful memorial was built in what was named Oconee Veterans Park, funded by private citizens.

Firefighters, to her, were like soldiers. Many have often been killed saving lives, even pets, and property. A volunteer firefighter Mike Beall, now mayor of North High Shoals, gave her $200 and said, “Put on an appreciation supper for firefighters.” 

She did. This has grown into 17 annual Fire/Rescue Appreciation dinners, which the publisher underwrites. The spring dinner drew 180 volunteers and their families.

Along the way, Maridee joined her as general manager of The Oconee Enterprise.