A veteran Virginia journalist who has been called “the oppressed people’s correspondent” has been named the 2014 recipient of the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award. Michael Paul Williams, metro columnist and reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, will be honored at a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol on Friday, June 27, during the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in Washington, D.C.
For more than three decades Williams has built a reputation for never being afraid to take sides on hot-button issues. He said in a 2012 interview that “afflicting the comfortable” is part of a columnist’s job description. He also believes “humanitarianism, by definition, should be a journalist’s highest calling.”
Williams writes a twice-weekly column which appears in the newspaper on Tuesday and Friday and he posts a weekly online video, “Mike’s Take,” on Wednesday.
His writings have won many plaudits, including Virginia Press Association awards for column writing in 1992, 1994 and 2007. More recently he won recognition for his contributions by being selected as a humanitarian honoree by the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities.
The Will Rogers award is named for the cowboy philosopher humorist of the 1920s and ’30s who performed many humanitarian acts. It was established in 1999 by the NSNC, an organization founded in 1977, which has members throughout the United States, parts of Canada and in other countries. The award is presented annually to a journalist “whose work has positively affected readers’ lives and produced tangible humanitarian benefits.”
A great-granddaughter of Rogers, Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry will participate in the presentation ceremony. Her father, Kem Rogers, and brother James Rogers have represented the Rogers family at previous meetings. She is a member of the boards of directors for the Will Rogers Memorial Foundation, the Will Rogers Ranch Foundation and the Will Rogers Motion Picture Foundation, which are sponsoring the Friday evening reception and dinner in association with the NSNC and the Will Rogers Writers Foundation, a non-profit incorporated in Virginia.
Robert Haught, coordinator of the award program, said, “It is fitting that the presentation be made in the Capitol because the statue of Will Rogers near the House chamber is a popular tourist attraction. Visitors stop to rub his toe for good luck.” The NSNC award is a desk-sized replica of the statue.
The first Will Rogers Humanitarian Award was presented in 2000, coincidentally at a previous Washington conference of the NSNC. The recipient was Jeffrey Zaslow, then of the Chicago Sun-Times. He joined The Wall Street Journal and achieved wide fame as the co-author with the late Prof. Randy Pausch of The Last Lecture and other best-selling books. Zaslow was killed in a highway accident in 2012.
Williams is a graduate of Virginia Union University and Northwestern University. He was one of a dozen U.S. journalists awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1999. He began his career at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1982 as a reporter in the paper’s Williamsburg bureau.
Times-Dispatch Publisher Tom Silvestri said readers “speak enthusiastically about the value and credibility” that Williams brings to the newspaper, adding, “He also has detractors, as most hard-hitting opinion-challengers do.” Silvestri said Williams is active in representing the paper in the community, “whether it’s while holding court in a classroom, showing up for an event sponsored by the community-focused newspaper or adding an insightful voice on a panel discussion about a major issue.”
Readers gained an insight into Williams’ feelings about his job and his writing in an interview by Silvestri in conjunction with the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities award published in December 2012. His reaction to that award was:
“I felt honored, humbled and somewhat confused. When you’ve been accused of being a racist hatemonger for decades, it’s hard to process being called a humanitarian.”
Williams added: “A lot of what we do as columnists is designed to tick people off. My subject matter hasn’t always gone over very well with a portion of our readership.
“In some ways, as a journalist, I’m more comfortable being reviled than embraced. After all, Richmond Magazine readers once voted me ‘newspaper columnist who makes you want to tear up the paper,’ and I was proud of that.”
Having written two decades worth of columns, Williams said, “Frankly, not all of them would fall into the humanitarian category.” But as examples he listed one that generated $20,000 in donations that “paved the way for a deserving Armstrong High School choir to travel to a New York music festival.” Also, “a dying man who happens to have a felony record, but was also the victim of a wrongful conviction, got to vote for the first time” as a result of the state’s response to reporter Frank Green’s stories and a follow-up column by Williams.
“I love that newspapers have the power to influence events in that way,” he told Silvestri.
Some of Williams’ columns in April 2014 were in support of a “Unity Ride” to spread awareness of sickle cell disease. The event, featuring a motorcycle ride from Petersburg, Va., to Richmond scheduled for Saturday, May 3, was expected to attract hundreds of bikers from as far away as Florida and New York. The ride has raised about $48,000 during its first five years.
Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry has been involved in the Rogers family business since 1991 and serves as the family spokesperson. She travels throughout the year to promote the legacy of Will Rogers. She lives in Bakersfield, Calif., with her husband of 25 years and is the founder and chief executive officer of a produce company called My Husband’s Nuts, specializing in candied and seasoned almonds.