Maggie Willis, who served as the longtime society editor of the Marietta Daily Journal, and worked for over three decades as a trailblazing Atlanta-area journalist, died Monday of complications from COVID-19. She was 95.
The granddaughter of a north Georgia newspaper owner, Willis was a Marietta native. She was remembered by both friends and family as being a precocious woman, exceptional in her pursuit of a career in journalism at a time when newsrooms were perceived as off-limits for women. Her son Stephen recalled that she got her start as a reporter, in 1960s Goldsboro, North Carolina, by striding past a secretary and into an editor’s office to ask for a job. The editor assigned her a story, and Ms. Willis was back the next morning with the piece completed. She soon became the paper’s full-time agriculture reporter.
Willis’ first husband, Steve Willis, served as a co-pilot of a B-17 bomber in World War II. While the family moved around with stints in Puerto Rico, Florida, Maine and North Carolina, Willis was always writing by composing newsletters and pamphlets in her free time. Upon Steve Willis’ retirement in 1968, the family relocated to Marietta. Maggie Willis’ first order of business was to visit the offices of the Marietta Journal, where she would work until her retirement in 2000.
At the Journal, Ms. Willis spent many years as a reporter, often covering the courthouse beat, before graduating to society editor. In 1986, she left the newsroom to care for her husband as his health began to deteriorate, but continued to write a weekly column that became a cherished feature of the newspaper.
Her granddaughter, Beth Mancuso, realized she was special as a young girl spending summers in Marietta. During the Fourth of July parade, Marietta’s political big wigs would stop their convertibles in front of Maggie Willis to shake her hand.
“She seemed to know everyone and be a part of everything,” Mancuso said.
Longtime MDJ columnist Nelson Price said Willis “put herself and her soul into all she wrote.”
“Maggie was a gracious, conscientious, humorous individual,” he said. “Her journalistic style was impeccable.”
She was no less of a go-getter outside of the office.
Actively engaged in Georgia politics, she regularly attended a weekly ladies’ Democratic luncheon where she and her cohorts were affectionately known as “the Political Hags.”
Former Congressman George “Buddy” Darden remembered “the Hags” as a force to be reckoned with, so much so that he briefly brought Maggie Willis to Washington in the early 1990s to work in his office.
“We’ve lost a great friend, and a very dedicated community leader with Maggie,” Darden said.
Beyond Capitol Hill, Willis was also known for her globe-trotting excursions. She traveled extensively in Europe, Africa, and Latin America, and was rumored to have played cards with Omar Sharif.
In 2008, Willis married John Wiedeman, an old friend and former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. The two first became acquainted as opponents; both Willis and Wiedeman were avid duplicate bridge players and had faced one another many times prior to their marriage. They both attained the rank of double life master in bridge, and her first husband served as president of Georgia’s Duplicate Bridge Association.
Wiedeman died last year.
Those close to Willis said among all her virtues, perhaps her greatest was her personal strength. Her first husband had Parkinson’s disease while one of her sons, James Ross Willis, developed juvenile diabetes.
“She had a lot of problems that I think would have been crushing to a lot of people. She took them all in stride. She never was down on things … she always did what she had to do, and then did a lot more,” her son Stephen said.
Born Margaret Ann Hill, Willis had two children, Stephen and James Ross Willis; four grandchildren, Beth Mancuso, Madeline Jarret and Stephen III and Robert Willis; and four great-grandchildren, Camden and Megan Mancuso and Eulah and Deveraux Jarret.
Because of the coronavirus, no immediate plans for a memorial service are scheduled. The family hopes to gather with friends in the spring to bury her ashes.