Pete Willett Obit

(Here's the obituary of Unipresser Pete Willett, who died March 9, 2001)


Peter S. Willett, who molded a long career in journalism with passion and vision, died Friday night of leukemia. He was 72.

Willett worked for United Press International, the New York Times Syndicate, United Features Syndicate and the Chicago Tribune Corporation in a quest that spanned nearly one-half century and, in many ways, mirrored the progress of the news industry.

Surrounded by his children and his former wife, Carolyn, Pete died in the Youville Rehabilitation Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He had been rushed to another hospital in Boston by Medivac Febuary 29 after a friend found him disabled in his home on Martha's Vineyard.

The son of a career U.S. Navy officer, Willett actually got his start in the news business as a copy boy for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He landed in Seattle by accident when a freighter he had boarded for a trip to Alaska cut short its voyage.

Pete had left his studies at Stanford, reportedly when a romance went sour. He managed to continue his trek to the wilds of Alaska where he spent the better part of one year hunting and fishing.

After returning to Stanford and graduating in 1950, Willett joined the Army and served in Korea and Japan. It was not Pete's first war zone.

His family was stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1941 when the Japanese bombed the U.S. fleet. Only 12, he was one of a group of young Boy Scouts who rowed small boats into the bay to help rescue sailors from their shattered ships.

After his discharge in 1952, Willett went to work as a reporter for United Press in Atlanta and began a 23-year career as the wire service's widest-ranging renaissance man. He covered the Georgia Capitol during the days of Gov. Herman Talmadge, did a brief stint in the Montgomery, Ala., bureau, then switched to sales. He finally moved into management as director of Southern Division sales; the Central Division Picture operations, Central Division Sales, UPI Computer Development; the UPI audio service and finally as Vice President for UPI Broadcast Services.

With each hat, Willett brought an intense mix of the reporter, the salesman, the visionary and the boss. He was directing audio operations at the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich when security forces sealed off the athlete's area following a hostage crisis. Pete donned a sweat suit and managed to convince guards that he was an Olympic athlete. Pete, who remained slim and boyish despite a rip-roaring lifestyle, was able to get inside and gather some exclusive information.

Al Webb, one of UPI's finest reporters, said he was proud to call Willett his mentor.

"From the first time we met, on my first day with UP in Raleigh, N.C.," Webb said, "PSW was to me the true spirit of United Press. Pete was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Another top UPI reporter, Leon Daniel, who like Webb, distinguished himself in Vietnam, said, "Reason would have been best served if Pete Willett had ascended to the UPI presidency. He had the vision to lead us through the dark times."

UPI President Roderick Beaton was for many years Pete's immediate boss and he recalled that Willett "was sometimes a burr under me, but a real good newsman and a very good friend."

Like so many others, Pete treasured his time at UPI above all others, even his semi-retirement days at Martha's Vineyard when he was able to go fishing almost every day.

Pete met his former wife, Carolyn, at UP in the Atlanta bureau in 1953. She was a rookie reporter just out of the University of Mississippi. Carolyn marks all of Pete's many transfers with the births of their three sons, Sabin, Wade and Erroll and daughter Mary Kate.

Willett is survived by his four children, nine grandchildren and a sister, Edith Samson, of Providence, R.I.

Visitation services will be held Monday at the Chapman, Cole and Gleason Funeral Home at Oak Bluff on the Vineyard from 6p to 9p. Burial will be private and the family is planning to hold a celebration of Pete's life this summer. -- By Billy Ferguson