SOUTH LAGUNA — Nick B. Williams, editor of The Times for 13 years during the beginnings of its transformation from mediocrity to excellence, died Wednesday in South Coast Medical Center, South Laguna, of complications of lung disease. He was 85.
Williams joined The Times as a copy editor in 1931 and worked his way through various editing jobs until he became editor in 1958. When he retired in 1971, The Times--which had previously been named in several polls as one of the 10 worst big-city newspapers in America--had begun to show up on lists of the 10 best big-city newspapers in America.
Under Williams' editorship, The Times opened 25 national and foreign bureaus, added and expanded several news and feature sections, won five Pulitzer Prizes, doubled the size of its news staff and almost doubled its daily circulation.
Otis Chandler succeeded his father, Norman Chandler, as publisher of The Times shortly after Williams became editor, and the two men worked together to remake The Times.
"Nick was one of the closest friends I ever had," Chandler said. "He probably helped me more than any other single person in my life. . . . He was a great editor. I couldn't have built The Times into what it is today without him."
Williams was "not the sort of editor who'd come to the . . . publisher's office and hear what I wanted . . . and go do it right away," Chandler said. "He was very thoughtful. I'd ask him to do something and he'd push those glasses of his up on his forehead . . . and he'd think . . . and we'd talk . . . and he'd go away . . . and pretty soon, I'd hear this . . . two-finger typing in his office and . . . two or three days later, I'd get . . . a two- or three-page, single-spaced memo on what we could and couldn't and should or shouldn't do about what I'd asked for."
Chandler said Williams was "especially good at reminding a young publisher that you can't change a whole paper overnight."
"I tend to be impatient," Chandler said. "I was constantly pounding on Nick: 'I want a foreign service . . . I want a national staff . . . I want an opinion section . . . I want . . . I want . . . I want. . . .'
"He steadied me and slowed me down and reminded me . . . we can't alienate old readers while looking for new ones . . . and above all, we must not make our changes so quickly that we don't make them . . . wisely and well."
Williams was a quiet, soft-spoken man--"his shyness was what I remember most about him," Chandler said in 1982--but that diffident demeanor, born largely of his Southern upbringing, was "very deceptive," as David Halberstam wrote in "The Powers That Be."
"Williams . . . did not look or seem like a man destined to be the great editor of a powerful, expanding national newspaper," Halberstam wrote. "He looked like someone who ought to be sitting on the neighborhood bar stool, or indeed might just have fallen off it, rumpled, unprepossessing.
"The voice (was) high and squeaky and almost country. Yet he was at once the most shrewd and intelligent of editors, a man deeply erudite and broad-gauged in his interests. . . . Tough, strong, wise, immensely appreciative of talent, he was perhaps the ablest major American newspaper editor of his generation. Certainly no other editor took a paper from one century to another so quickly, so cleanly--and with such excellence."
Operating in Chandler's considerable shadow, Williams was not widely known, either with the newspaper-reading public nor among his professional peers, but late in his career, recognition finally began to come his way.
In 1971, the USC Journalism Assn. presented him with its Distinguished Achievement Award for "outstanding contributions to the communications profession." In 1981, he was given the National Press Club's prestigious Fourth Estate Award, a prize given annually to honor a distinguished career in journalism.
Williams was born in Onancock, Va., developed an early affection for the classics, studied Greek at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and graduated as a government major from the University of Texas in 1929.
He worked for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, the Nashville Tennessean and the Los Angeles Express (now defunct) before joining The Times in 1931.
Two years later, he married Elizabeth Rickenbaker, and they had four children. She died in 1973 and Williams subsequently married Barbara Steele.
The two lived in South Laguna Beach, where after his retirement Williams pursued his lifelong love of literature, art and history and wrote book reviews (mostly on mysteries) and Op-Ed articles (on subjects ranging from the press to modern education to the art of making a proper bouillabaisse) for The Times.
He also wrote periodic notes to Chandler, offering his comments on the paper's performance.
Williams' rapid climb to the editorship of The Times surprised even him.