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Former Denton High, UNT grad Celeste Williams, who led Star-Telegram's sports department, dies

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Jeff Caplan, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Pioneering sports editor made Star-Telegram her family

Denton native Celeste Williams, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's sports editor for nearly two decades and a pioneer for women in sports journalism, changed the lives of many of the men and women she influenced, inspired and hired.

Along the way she also managed to change a policy or two in a workplace that remains overwhelmingly male.

"The biggest challenge I faced at the Sporting News was when I got there, they had a rule that women had to wear dresses," Ms. Williams said in a 2014 oral history she did with three journalism students at her alma mater, the University of North Texas. "And I said, 'I'm not your person then. I'm not going to do this stuff and wear a dress all day.'

"Anyway, they changed that," Ms. Williams continued. "Thank goodness."

A legion of sports writers and editors are also saying thank goodness for the opportunity to have worked with a titan in the industry, who, during 18 years at the Star-Telegram, elevated the paper's profile by consistently positioning the sports section as a national award-winner alongside the country's largest metropolitan papers.

Ms. Williams, 65, whose official title was managing editor for sports and features, died of cancer Monday evening at her home in Arlington.

She was fond of saying, "We played up, as they say, against Boston and New York," about her decision for the Star-Telegram sports section to compete in the highest circulation category of the annual Associated Press Sports Editors competition.

From 2001 through 2007, the Star-Telegram earned Top 10 status six times for its daily sports section, five times for special sections and twice, in 2002 and 2005, it won Triple Crown recognition for daily, special sections and Sunday section. The Star-Telegram stopped entering APSE after 2007 when layoffs begin to drastically reduce staff.

"She was so qualified and capable," former Star-Telegram sports columnist Jim Reeves said. "She was never panicky, she was always steady and under control. You felt solid with her that she was going to support you and take care of whatever needed to be taken care of."

Ms. Williams' intelligence, creativity, news sense and perhaps most telling, her sincerity, fostered a shared spirit of teamwork and a relentless pursuit to produce high quality journalism, both from a content and visual perspective. She possessed an intense loyalty to her staff, from the agate clerks to the high-profile columnists -- a group of entrenched newspapermen older than she -- and her staffs reciprocated in kind.

"Celeste was more than a boss to most of us," Reeves said. "She was like the head of the family. She just took care of all of us."

"The bottom line is she was not just a damn good newspaperwoman, but just a damn good person." — Randy Galloway

Star-Telegram sports columnist and radio talk show host Randy Galloway said Tuesday: "The bottom line is she was not just a damn good newspaperwoman, but just a damn good person. There were many times in my column writing that I made some people mad, some people in high positions, ownership positions -- I can think of Ranger owners in particular -- and Celeste would have to meet with those angry Ranger people," he recalled.

"I never asked what went on in the meeting, but Celeste would call, she would say they explained their side, we explained our side, and by the way, I loved the column," he said. "That was Celeste."

As part of the oral history piece at UNT, Ms. Williams explained her management philosophy she crafted from years of experience.

"I think everywhere I've gone, I've learned something and picked up stuff," she said. "Worked with some really talented bosses. Always just said to myself, 'Dear Lord, don't let me be an asshole like some bosses I've had.' That's the main thing. It's just worked for me."

Numerous Facebook posts on Tuesday serve as proof of the respect she garnered from colleagues and the many friendships she made.

A stop in her office, filled with framed Star-Telegram prized sports section covers and other sports memorabilia, wasn't so much a talk with the boss as it would become a chat with a friend in a candy store. Ms. Williams was well known for her always-filled jars of mini candy bars and Twizzlers.

Staff members from other departments routinely made their way down the hallway to cure a midday sugar craving and talk sports, movies, music -- she could talk forever about the many Wilco and Pearl Jam concerts she had seen -- and books.

"We would touch base on what I was writing," said Star-Telegram columnist Gil LeBreton, "but we'd chat for another 30 minutes on what movies we'd seen and she'd give me a list of Netflix binges I'd have to catch up on."

Ms. Williams grew up in Denton and attended Denton High School before enrolling at UNT, then known as North Texas State University. She always knew journalism was her calling. She started a circuitous career as a one-person sports staff at the Seguin Gazette. She then moved on to the Beaumont Enterprise and Journal, where she met a young writer named David Martindale.

They became a couple and remained together for the next 37 years. Mr. Martindale, a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Star-Telegram, followed Ms. Williams to stops at the Houston Post, Houston Chronicle, an early stint at the Star-Telegram in 1989, the Orlando Sentinel, Sporting News, Chicago Sun-Times, Kansas City Star, Dallas Morning News, San Antonio Express-News and finally back to the Star-Telegram, where she was hired as Senior Sports Editor on May 18, 1999. In 2003, she was promoted to assistant managing editor for sports, and in 2008 she was also put in charge of the features section.

"I think Celeste would have cringed at using this word to describe her, but she was a pioneer, one of the first female sports editors in the country, and she was a superstar at it." — Gil LeBreton

"I think Celeste would have cringed at using this word to describe her, but she was a pioneer, one of the first female sports editors in the country, and she was a superstar at it," LeBreton said. "She worked at a lot of places, and not because she was restless, but because people wanted to have her run their sports sections.

"Her influence knew no gender, but there's no telling how many young women she's inspired to be sports journalists and sports administrators."

Ms. Williams served on the board of the Association for Women in Sports Media, which this week is holding its annual convention in Austin. Longtime Star-Telegram beat writer Charean Williams (no relation) was a featured speaker at the event Monday.

"She was so much on my mind yesterday because of being there and so many people in the business being there and asking about her. A big part of that conversation was her being a trailblazer in the business," Charean Williams said. "There are so few female sports editors in the business and she was one of the great ones. It's a sad day for women and sports journalists because of what she meant to us."

Ms. Williams was also a very private person. Few outside of Mr. Martindale knew how sick she had become. She opted not to see visitors as she spent the last two months under hospice care at their home, Mr. Martindale said.

Ms. Williams became known to Star-Telegram employees outside of the newsroom because of her passion for hobbies such as gardening, for which she ran a popular Facebook page, her love of animals -- she and Mr. Martindale were parents to four rescue dogs and one rescue bird -- and her tireless efforts to raise funds for the Goodfellow Fund, the Star-Telegram's holiday charity that serves underprivileged children.

Christmas was a particular favorite of Ms. Williams. Two windowsills in her office are adorned with an eclectic collection of do-dads, including several snowmen. For many years, she hosted a holiday party for Star-Telegram staffers at their home.

Last week, with Mr. Martindale understanding that his partner of nearly four decades had only limited time, he contacted Ms. Williams' mother, Joyce Elam, and sister Melanie Williams, both of whom live in Richardson, and then asked Ms. Williams if it would be "stupid for me to set up Christmas?"

"She said, 'No, it's cool,'" Mr. Martindale said.

"I got out the Christmas tree, put all of our favorite ornaments on it, and we had Christmas on Saturday."

Mr. Martindale said Ms. Williams did not want to have church service. Instead, a party will be planned for some time before Memorial Day. He said in lieu of sending flowers, a donation to the SPCA is preferred.

FEATURED PHOTO: Celeste Williams spent a lot of time in the office but always managed to get out for Big 12 football media days each summer. (Courtesy photo)