Community role model: Rita Williams conquered 'barriers to success,' and now helps others who face them

Retired broadcast journalist Rita Williams poses for a portrait at her home in Portola Valley on May 10. Photo by Magali Gauthier/The Almanac.

Star journalist Rita Williams of Portola Valley retired from her job at KTVU television in 2013, but after a 35-year career in Bay Area TV she was not about to sit still.

On May 3 she received the 2019 Role Model Award from Menlo Park-based JobTrain, one of an array of charities that Williams has had a hand in helping during her career and after.

JobTrain provides training for jobs with a future for people who in many cases have not finished high school and are coming out of jail or prison.

It helps them get their high school equivalency certificates, and provides four to six months of training in the building trades, medical assistance and other fields where there is a demand for workers with skills, Williams said during an interview with The Almanac.

Williams was also on the board of directors for Friends of Faith, a charity to benefit indigent breast cancer patients named after KTVU reporter Faith Fancher, who died of the disease, she said.

And some of the stories she did as reporter have had a side effect of helping people in need. For example, a segment about the Fisher House in Palo Alto, a home for relatives of veterans being treated for traumatic brain injuries who couldn't otherwise live in the Bay Area, inspired $1 million in donations to open a second facility, she said.

Williams said her inspiration for helping the less-fortunate came from her childhood in Lubbock, Texas.

She said she was brought up in a lower-middle-class household where her father had an eighth-grade education. He advised her to get as much education as she could because it was something no one could take away.

"I can certainly feel for folks in the same situation today," Williams said. "You can be a reporter. You can be anything you want to be."

One of her fondest memories is of a group of volunteers in town known as the Goodfellows, who prepared and delivered presents to underprivileged kids on Christmas Day.

"The closeness I felt with my dad delivering the gifts felt better than anything I received on Christmas," she said. "It showed me early on how much better it is to help people."

And her career serves as an example of bringing yourself up by the bootstraps.

After graduating from Texas Tech in Lubbock, she worked in print journalism before switching to television reporting.

In the early days, TV news was dominated by men, and a woman had to struggle to get in the door, she noted.

"I took a 60 percent salary cut to try TV, and it worked," she said.

Among the major stories she covered was the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989; in the aftermath, she spent the night on the Bay Bridge and reported on the situation the next day.

Williams won an award for her reporting on the killing of Oscar Grant, the passenger whose 2009 shooting by a BART police officer in Oakland provoked major riots.

She's been giving back by mentoring women who want to break into broadcasting so that they "don't have to learn the hard way, like I did."

Williams has earned her role model award, particularly in her efforts toward women's equality and helping people who are confronting "barriers to success," said Patty Rally, director of development and marketing for JobTrain.

Williams and her husband, Lindsay Bowen, moved to Portola Valley from Belmont in 1989. She said the home they bought was "a diamond in the rough, and it's still a diamond in the rough."

"It's always great after working in an environment with sirens and noise to drive home and restore yourself, and then go back," she said.

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1 person likes this
Posted by Zeni Mallari
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on May 20, 2019 at 12:30 pm

I am a fan of Rita /Williams and want to invite her to join us as a member of the Peninsula Volunteers comprise of women who help Seniors stay in our community regardless of their station in life through our housing program. We do meals on wheels as well as the Rosener House our day care for frail elders and the Little House our facility also in Menlo Park for active seniors. Welcome aboard Rita we are proud of you and your recognition so well deserved.

Like this comment
Posted by Dianne W
a resident of another community
on May 30, 2019 at 7:09 am

I went to high school with Rita, she and I were on the school newspaper staff together. Rita has always been a star in everything she has pursued. Fresh out of university she blazed the train for women on Congressional office staffs, then in print and broadcast journalism. She deserves every accolade sent her way. I'm proud to be her friend for over 50 years. Congratulations, Rita, on another well-deserved award.

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