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Fayetteville loses a special journalist

Lorry Williams, the first woman executive editor of The Fayetteville Observer, died Tuesday after a long struggle with cancer. Her colleagues remember her as a mentor who fought for them as much as she fought to get the news first and to get it right.


About three weeks ago, Lorry Williams told a colleague that she was stepping down as managing editor of CityView news and CityView magazine.

By then, the breast cancer she had fought for two years had spread throughout her body, leaving her so weak that she could barely type using only two fingers.

“You know how much this job means to me,” she told the colleague as she struggled to hold back tears.

Ms. Williams transitioned to hospice care at her mother’s home. She died early Tuesday at the age of 59.

Everyone who ever worked with or for Ms. Williams — during her many years at The Fayetteville Observer, then at CityView — knew exactly how much she valued her responsibilities and mission as a journalist. 

In her newsrooms, she was usually the first one in the door and the last to leave. Early in her career as a reporter, colleagues described her as tenacious and fearless, a woman who was so brave, determined and talented that she was always among those called on to cover a hurricane or other major disaster, or to dig into a difficult investigation to pry out the truth. 

After she became an editor at the Observer in the early 2000s, overseeing coverage of the Cape Fear region, she set high expectations for her reporters and cared deeply about seeing them succeed — whether by reporting the news of the day or producing important, impactful journalism.

“It’s kind of hard to imagine journalism in this town and this community without Lorry,” said longtime Fayetteville Observer columnist Bill Kirby Jr., who now writes for CityView. “Lorry Williams was, and always will be, the consummate news professional and the consummate journalist.”

Hometown roots

Ms. Williams, who was born in Spring Lake and lived in Fayetteville nearly all her life, worked at the Observer for 33 years — from 1987 to December 2020. She became the newspaper’s first female executive editor in July 2019, replacing Matt Leclercq.

“To me, Lorry epitomized the type of journalist that we all strive to be,” said Mr. Leclercq, now senior managing editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “She loved our community and felt an obligation to be relentless in how the newspaper covered it, regardless of all the changes that have affected our news industry. She served with integrity and uncompromising ethics and rock-solid judgment. She was a fighter who never gave up. She inspired me and all the reporters and editors who passed through the Observer over the years to be better. So many of us are better because of Lorry. I think that’s a legacy she would be proud of.”

In November 2021, Ms. Williams became managing editor for CityView TODAY, an online community news publication that now goes by the name CityView. 

“CityView TODAY, and every one of us who lives here, lost a hero today,” said Tony Chavonne, CityView’s owner and publisher. “But we celebrate the fact that, with her vision and leadership, Lorry’s hopes of an informed community is the legacy she leaves behind for each of us.”

About the time Ms. Williams entered hospice care, some of her closest friends started a social media page called “Lorry’s Friends.”

The page became a reunion of sorts for the reporters and editors who have passed through the Observer over the decades. More than 100 people joined it, and all of them had something warm to say about Ms. Williams.

“I spoke to Lorry today,” Mr. Chavonne wrote on the page a few days ago. “She seems genuinely touched, and almost surprised, about the outpouring of love being shown. What a strong person she is.”

Tributes pour in

Longtime Fayetteville Observer photographer Cindy Burnham, who had sat by Ms. Williams’ side during her final days, encouraged people to send letters expressing how much she meant to them and their careers.  The idea, Mrs. Burnham said, was to let Lorry know just how deeply she was loved while she remained alive. The letters poured in, along with monetary donations to help Ms. Williams’ mother pay expenses.

Former Fayetteville Observer reporter Venita Jenkins recalled how her friend and former colleague was always a willing participant when she wanted to knock something off her bucket list. Among their feats: complete the 5K Diva Run in Myrtle Beach, tour Yadkin Valley wine country, and enjoy the sights and sounds of New Orleans and Memphis.

“Her passion for life equaled her love of journalism,” Ms. Jenkins said. “As an editor and mentor, Lorry was tough. She expected the best work from her reporters and challenged them in ways that improved their craft as storytellers and as public watchdogs. She was also fierce whenever a reporter was the target of unwarranted criticism.

“As a friend, Lorry was just as much of a protector, motivator, and source of inspiration. I’ll never forget our 5:30 a.m. 5K training sessions along Hay Street. She was my drill sergeant. Only she blasted Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Stronger’ instead of a military cadence.

“Lorry was there whenever I needed her, whether to be my sounding board, truth teller, travel buddy, or taste tester for a new recipe I was trying. Lorry is love, and I will always carry her with me.”

Like so many others, former Fayetteville Observer reporter Jeff Newton, who went on to become a producer for CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” described Ms. Williams as a mentor and a friend. Mr. Newton recalled one award-winning Observer project led by Ms. Williams that exposed people at Fort Bragg using government-issued credit cards for personal gains, including to pay for weddings, to fix their personal vehicles, and to buy a $15,000 Christmas tree.

“To this day, I'm still really proud, but there's no way that series would have come off the way it did and been recognized for the work that it did without her pushing that, leading the way,” Mr. Newton said. “She's just so good at wrapping her brain around these big, powerful stories that aren't just a daily thing. … They need to be picked apart, analyzed over time, so that you have an understanding of the depth of the story itself.”

Charles Broadwell, former Fayetteville Observer executive editor and publisher, led the charge to get a classroom named in Ms. Williams’ honor at her beloved UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Ms. Williams learned about the honor shortly before her death.

“Lorry, we are so proud that you are an alumna of our school,” Dean Raul Reis wrote to her in announcing that the journalism school’s Visiting Scholar Office would be named in her honor. “Your colleagues have told us of your long and successful career in journalism at The Fayetteville Observer, including many years as a reporter and editor. We are especially proud that you served as the Observer’s first female executive editor in its 200-year history!”

Mr. Broadwell described Ms. Williams as “the consummate news professional, dedicated to getting the story right. She was at the heart of our newsroom, leading our coverage of countless stories on deadline from late-night election results to coastal Carolina hurricanes.”

Ms. Williams also possessed the spirit and gratitude of a volunteer. She became a board member and then president of the Cape Fear Division of the March of Dimes, leading countless fundraising drives throughout the years.

A funeral service for Ms. Williams will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 4, at Adcock Funeral Home in Spring Lake.

Shortly after her death was announced, Mr. Leclercq posted on the “Lorry’s Friends” social media page.

“I know with all my heart that Lorry feels the love from all of you and is smiling,” he wrote. “As heartbroken as I feel now, I’m so grateful to have had the privilege to work beside her and be her friend. She made so many of us better. I woke up this morning and the skies here were beautiful Carolina blue. Thank you, Lorry.”

Greg Barnes is an investigative reporter for CityView. He worked alongside Ms. Williams almost the entire time she worked at the Observer. He can be reached at gregbarnes401@gmail.com

Fayetteville, Lorry Williams, journalism