Who the (blank) is Willie Kee?


Once upon a time what might possibly have been the world’s shortest news crew was sent to cover a series of earthquakes near Oroville (CA). There were fears an earthen dam might liquify and collapse and innundate the town below. While running around town, searching for interviews, they ran into someone even shorter – and meaner – with a real attitude. Such was my first meeting with the legendary Willie Kee. Joann Lee was my reporter – and she stood five one. Me, I’m still at five two – but Willy by golly was shorter than me. By a good eighth of an inch. I would have pointed that out to him, but he scared me. He wore trademark black – pants, boots, shirt and leather vest. Black sunglasses. Foo Manchu beard. And his signature black leather hat. Never smiled in public. And from what I could see, everyone deferred to him. At that time I thought it was out of pure fear.

A few years later I ended up in the San Francisco Bay area…freelancing. I ran into Willie again and again. I did some work for his station – KTVU in Oakland. And I found out that the frightening front hid a gentle, sensitive man with a great talent. He tolerated me, badgered me…knew I would die to stay in news..and somehow became my mentor. Thus the comment in the last post about breaking every bone in my hands if I zoom during a crutial moment of an interview. He was right (of course, as he often reminded me) – it detracted from the moment. I was a newbie not only in news, but also a new member of SFBAPPA. By now I was on staff at KQED and when they cancelled the news show and laid off the staff, I began to attend meetings more. There were some great contacts there. Not that it did me any good – I was five months pregnant in an era when pregnancy meant go home, have the baby, stay home.

For some reason KTVU began hiring me…shoots here and there and a lot of vacation relief editing. I’ve always blamed (thank you) Willie for putting in a word for me. I was a pariah – no one else would touch me because of my “sensitive” condition.

After Carol joined the world, I continued working at KTVU as an editor, but getting out in the field more and more. And one night…while sitting back enjoying cup of wine at a BAPPA meeting, I saw some folks picking on Willie…some young Turks decided to bait him, knowing he had a temper. What they didn’t realize is how bad his temper really was. Oh – and they didn’t know he was a (never a former) Marine. As soon as I saw him moving towards them I made my move and got between him and probable mayhem. The aire was hot and thick…but both sides backed off. I went back to drink my wine in the back of the room. Next thing I know I’m the BAPPA vice president. His way of thanking me…and I became his gopher. Willie ruled BAPPA with his usual style – blustery, confident, but willing to listen…and always ready to share a laugh.

And talent…I can’t think of many photograhers who’ve won twelve Emmies…nine for photography. He pushed himself and his reporters and set an example for several generations of northern California news camerafolk. He was one of the first Asian television cameramen in the state. And he always called it like it was. Whenever I find myself in a bind, I ask myself how Willie would have handled it. Of course, if he knew this, he’d tell me to do it my way, but be damn sure to do it right.


2 thoughts on “Who the (blank) is Willie Kee?

  1. What a great moment in your life! Thanks for sharing. It’s very inspirational. Though I was impressed by your friend’s story, Willie Kee, I admired your strength as a woman, newly mother (at that time) and professional. Fantastic!

    I suspect there is a mysterious element of power about 5.2 females… I believe nature tries to compensate it with a double dose of courage! 🙂


  2. It’s always nice to think we’re special…but every time my ego started to inflate I’d see the real strong women – women of the earth, struggling every day to put in time to earn money to support their families. Farmworkers, housekeepers, fast food/gas station clerks. I’ve always been lucky to have a job I loved that made good money. I bow my head humbly to those who have less and work harder.

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