Rebecca Chase Williams, a former mayor of Brookhaven who died March 11 from cancer at age 70, is being remembered for her career as a TV journalist. She worked for several years at Atlanta’s WXIA-TV station where she won three regional Emmys and went on to a 20-year career with ABC News as a national correspondent.
“[M]y colleague, my mentor, my good friend … was so lucky to have such a wonderful partner for those years at ABC News. She made my world a better place,” said Kayce Freed Jennings, wife of the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, in a Facebook post.
Her stories on everything from the Georgia General Assembly to a death-penalty trial of serial killer Ted Bundy earned her a reputation as a “professional, straightforward journalist,” said her husband, Dick Williams. He is the former owner and publisher of the Dunwoody Crier and former host of the “Georgia Gang” on FOX 5 Atlanta.
Her Facebook page – open to friends only — is filled with tributes from local reporters and from numerous ABC News colleagues about her work on “ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings,” “Nightline” and “Good Morning America.”
“Becky was an ABC News legend,” said Steve Osunsami, an ABC News correspondent based in Atlanta.
“She was a great journalist and more importantly a great person,” said Dan Woo, a former senior producer at ABC News.
“Becky was one of the few journalists who touched my heart!” said Peter T. Michaelis, a former field producer. “Her generosity of spirit and collegiality and her friendship made working with her always a pleasure. She is and always will be one of ABC’s superstars!”
She and Dick Williams met each other when he was her boss at WXIA in the 1970s.
She was one of just a few women at the Capitol when it was ruled by Tom Murphy, the Democratic Speaker of the House. Murphy, who held on to the Speaker post from 1973 to 2002, was a “curmudgeon” and ruled with a heavy hand, Dick Williams said. That didn’t intimidate Rebecca Chase Williams, not even when she decided the Gold Dome itself needed an upgrade.
“There was no restroom for women [on the main floor], and they couldn’t go to the restroom without taking the elevator,” Dick Williams said. Rebecca Chase Williams conferred with the few women legislators at the time and they “forced Tom Murphy to build them a restroom,” he said with a chuckle.
Dick and Rebecca married in 1979. He went to work for the Atlanta Journal newspaper, and she was hired by ABC News.
Her first assignment with ABC News was covering serial killer Ted Bundy’s six-week death-penalty trial in Miami, Florida, in 1979. By some accounts, it was the first murder trial to be televised in the U.S. Bundy was convicted of killing two Florida State University sorority women on July 24, 1979. He was executed in the electric chair at the Florida State Prison on Jan. 24, 1989.
“It was a weird way to begin a marriage,” Dick Williams said. “But as a reporter, I understood.”
Last year, Rebecca Chase Williams made an “accidental comeback” to TV news, he said.
In February 2019, ABC’s “20/20” aired a special titled “Bundy” to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his execution. Rebecca was interviewed about what she saw during the trial.
“It was so chilling. It was sickening,” she said of Bundy’s behavior during the “20/20” program.
She was also interviewed for a “20/20” special on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker that aired last January. She had covered the bizarre story of the celebrity televangelists and their fall from grace in the 1980s amid a sex scandal and Jim Bakker’s conviction for stealing millions of dollars from viewers and donors.
Dick Williams said he was glad their daughters, Chase and Clare, got to see their mother on TV during the “20/20” specials. She had retired from ABC News to become a full-time mother and they didn’t know much about that side of her, he said.
“She made an accidental comeback [to TV news] last year … and now they could see an older, more glamourous Becky sitting for an interview,” he said. “It was great for the girls to see their mom as a network correspondent.”
At ABC News, she also covered stories of Cuban refugees risking their lives on crowded boats and other vessels seeking freedom in Miami; the Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom; political conventions; presidential campaigns; and all the major hurricanes that struck the Southeast.
Toward the end of her career at ABC News, Rebecca developed her own beat, Dick Williams said. She reported on social policy, such as welfare, taxes, poverty and housing. That made life for the family more “tolerable” because she was not always having to chase breaking news, he said.
A move into politics
Their shared love of journalism made them compatible as a couple, as parents and as business partners, he said. When they bought the Dunwoody Crier and he was editor and publisher, she revived her reporting skills by writing about the Dunwoody cityhood movement.
After Dunwoody voters approved their own city in 2008, she was inspired to help lead an effort to incorporate Brookhaven. Voters approved cityhood in 2012. Current Mayor John Ernst and City Council member Linley Jones say she was the “mother of Brookhaven.”
“The skills she learned as a reporter translated nicely to public policy,” Dick Williams said. “She’s as good a reporter I’ve ever seen.”
“She was tenacious, thorough and accurate,” he said. “At the heart of both of us is we were driven by our work. … We were a good team. We were both driven by that same fire bell.”
Bill Liss, a reporter for WXIA, did not work with Rebecca Chase Williams while she was at the station during the late 1970s, but knew of her reputation. When he was working on a story about unsafe sidewalks in front of a Brookhaven school soon after the city incorporated, he said she was able to quickly untangle red tape to get them fixed.
“Sidewalks were falling apart, and it became complicated, but she stepped in and she straightened it all out in one hour,” he said.
“She was real go-getter … [S]he was five-star all the way. That’s probably why Peter Jennings, as I understand, loved her. She put up with no nonsense,” he said.
Williams was elected to the first Brookhaven City Council and was appointed as the second mayor in 2015 after J. Max Davis stepped down to run for state office. She intended to run for mayor in 2016, but reversed course after Dick fell and had to have hip replacement surgery.
She was then diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live, Dick said. She lived for three-and-a-half more years.
“She quit [her campaign] because of my health and three months later she was diagnosed with cancer,” he said.
He said what impresses him most about Rebecca is how multi-faceted her life was – from working in local news to network news to motherhood and then to public service.
She became quite ill about four months ago, he said, but continued to be positive and upbeat.
“If she would have been a guy, she would have been a linebacker,” he said. “She was a total optimist and was always positive and moving forward.”
In addition to Dick Williams, her surviving family includes her two daughters and sons-in law, Catherine Chase Cooper and Wesley, and Clare Margaret Stevens and William; her sister, Nancy Cheek Smith of Prescott, Arkansas; and her brother, John Cheek of Snellville, Georgia.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the Marist School and St. Martin’s Episcopal School.
Updated: The visitation and funeral for Rebecca Chase Williams scheduled for March 17 and 18 have been postponed indefinitely, according to the family. A private family mass will be held Wednesday.