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Brian Williams has been to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf Coast. He has traveled to dozens of U.S. cities and foreign countries in the course of covering the news for more than two decades.

But the “NBC Nightly News” anchor admits the Jersey shore is his happy place. Raised in Monmouth County, the 51-year-old has learned there’s no place like home.

People who have enjoyed a spectacular journey in life – as I’ve been lucky enough to – end up wantingto go back, because where you’re from is the only thing that is sure and true in your life,” he explains. “That determines who you are. I’ve always said I wouldn’t want to grow up anywhere else or any other way than the way I grew up in Middletown.”

Williams was born further north, in Ridgewood, and spent a few years in upstate New York before his family settled in Middletown. As a teen, he worked at the local pancake house and Sears® Department Store, and joined the local volunteer fire company while in high school. His helmet still hangs proudly in his New York office.

“It was Old Village Fire Company, Engine Number 11,” he remembers. “My first year was as a senior in high school, then I was a local community college kid. Even when I moved away to Washington, D.C., I remained a member for years thereafter and would answer calls any time I was home in Jersey. There’s a firehouse in New York City that I’ve adopted, and they’ve adopted me. I go sit with them in the kitchen. It’s a very powerful thing to do because unlike a lot of other occupations, it tends to mark you for life and fuse you together with others who have done it.”

 

Beginning his career

Williams transferred from Brookdale Community College to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. where he interned at the White House. After several years working in the nation’s capitol during the Jimmy Carter administration, he moved from politics to broadcasting, taking a job at a local station in Pittsburg, Kansas. Working his way up to bigger markets, he landed in Philadelphia as a reporter at WCAU-TV in the mid ’80s.

“I was their New Jersey correspondent, and roughly a third to 40 percent of the viewership in the city of Philadelphia is Southern New Jersey,” he recalls. “Luckily, I was totally familiar with South Jersey. Atlantic City was exploding during those years. I covered the slow movement of the old neighborhood as the high rises came in and the problems that caused. I did stories on blueberries, cranberries, the Pine Barrens, beaches, congestion and transportation. The knowledge I didn’t have about the southern part of the state earlier in life, I sure got a master’s degree in South Jersey while covering it for WCAU. I now feel at home in the southern part as much as I do in the northern part.”

 

Following the news

Since being named anchor of NBC Nightly News in 2004, Williams has covered virtually every major news story since.

He gained attention as the first and only network evening news anchor to report from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, arriving even before the hurricane struck. He followed the story from inside the Superdome. Williams stayed in New Orleans for the aftermath and continues to visit the region to report on the recovery and rebuilding efforts.

five-years-after-hurricane-katrina-hit-new-orleansHe continues to spend a lot of time on the road, going where the news is. “I’m the representative,” he explains. “Most of the people in my audience are never going to get to Mosul, or Fallujah, or even Grand Isle, Louisiana. So, I’ve got to be the guy telling them.”

Williams admits these stories touch him personally. Returning recently from the Gulf of Mexico where he covered the oil spill, he still has oil stains on his clothing. “I have some oil on my shirt that has been washed a couple of times – it ain’t coming out. This stuff is as permanent as ink from a pen. You put that in terms that people can understand, and that helps to paint a picture.”

“I have a cup of oil from this oil spoil that I got out of the water,” he says. “It’s on our kitchen window sill and everyone who comes in our house looks at it. They take a knife and they dig into it – it’s solidified now. They want to smell it. They want to touch it, they want to see if it stains their skin. They want to experience it. On a larger level, that’s what I’m doing by going to cover these stories.”

He says every story he covers affects him profoundly, yet he must remain objective in spite of his personal feelings. “I’ve got to turn around and give you as straight a version of what I’ve found as I can,” he says.

 

Balancing family and work

With a wife, 22-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son, Williams has made a concerted effort to spend quality time with his family. “It has not been easy,” he says, “but now it can be told that when my kids were young I managed to cut a lot of corners, drive real fast and take an occasional slow afternoon off.”

When his kids were young, Williams worked nights at cable channel MSNBC, which allowed him to spend time with his children during the day. “I was the only dad at a lot of daytime assemblies at school,” he recalls. “My son told me recently that his favorite thing was getting out early on Wednesdays and knowing my car was going to be outside the school, waiting to pick him up. In a job where people assume I’m estranged from everything at home, you find a way to make the time you have quality time.”

While his children aren’t directly following in dad’s footsteps, they are interested in careers in entertainment. Williams’ describes his daughter as a performer, actress, vocalist and improv comic. His son hopes to get into sports radio.

Williams is thankful that his daughter has a college degree and his son is in the midst of earning his. Not receiving his college degree is probably the anchor’s biggest regret. “I didn’t even get a two-year associates degree,” he says. “It’s a regret, because you want to say to everybody, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ I happened to land in the one occupation where a degree, that piece of validation, per se, isn’t really necessary. But I’m also in a very freakishly unique circumstance.”

He does, however, love to read and believes his job is a master’s degree in itself. He enjoys presidential and American history and always studies the places around the world that he covers. He is also a Bruce Springsteen fan and recently filled in as a guest DJ for E Street Radio.

Social media and changing with the times Brian Williams does not have a Twitter account, although he does follow other people’s. “What we’re going through right now is nothing short of making everyone the media,” he says. “That’s a big change from the way I grew up.”

He admits he is much more careful to think through everything he says when he is in public. In the past, he may have presented more of his personal opinions at small gatherings or while giving a speech, but times have changed. He reminds himself that nothing stays in the room anymore.

“It kind of changes the way you live,” he says. “It absolutely changes my behavior, and the way I talk to an audience. Sadly, it changes what they get out of me. There are times, for the benefit of the audience, I wish it was different. Some otherwise very smart, competent people have been caught off-guard.”

 

Circling back to the Jersey Shore

The Williams family still returns to the beach on summer weekends. “Gravitating back to the Jersey shore after a life with a lot of travel and raising kids has been my goal,” he says. “It’s where I feel the most comfortable. Home is home, I don’t care who you are – and that’s my home.”

 

November 2010
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