A Homer mayor and former Homer News publisher has died. Gary Lee Williams, 77, died Oct. 29, 2021, in Rancho Cucamonga, California, of complications from multiple myeloma, a cancer that forms in white blood cells.
His family announced his death in an obituary published in the Peninsula Clarion on March 11.
In a turbulent time in Homer’s history when the old guard ran up against a new crowd of environmentalists, Vietnam War veterans and hippies, the town elected Williams over incumbent mayor Hazel Heath and James “Hobo Jim” Varsos. Williams served one term as Homer mayor from 1976-78. Current Homer Mayor Ken Castner, who worked for Williams at the Homer News, called him “a bridge mayor.”
“He was old family, well-known old family, but also progressive,” Castner said. “ … He was a mayor of a time when we needed to have someone bridge. The town in the early 1970s was teaming with new people.”
Born in 1944 in Glendale, California, to Edna and Bob Williams, Williams moved with his family to Colorado in the late 1940s and then to Anchor Point in 1953. The oldest child and only boy, he had four younger sisters.
“That tells you a lot about him,” said his sister Carol Schmidt.
The Williams family settled on a homestead about 2.5 miles on the North Fork Road from the Anchor Point end. Bob Williams ran a sawmill and later started Modern Builders Supply in Anchor Point before moving the business to Homer. Her brother worked hard from about the age of 9, Schmidt said.
“He was very quiet and kind of stuck to himself,” she said. “ … He didn’t have much play time. He was working, either working at the store and at the homestead. When he wasn’t working, he was down on the North Fork River fishing.”
After graduating from Ninilchik High School, where he played on the basketball team, Williams went off to college, first Pepperdine University and later Oregon State University, Corvallis. He also got a Master of Public Administration from the University of Alaska Anchorage and had attended a videographer school in California. In addition to owning and working as editor and publisher of the Homer News, Williams was a city manager, a public television director, a documentary filmmaker and wildlife videographer and a university administrator. His last job before retiring was with the Kenai Peninsula Borough Coastal Management Program.
After college, Williams returned in 1973 to help run the family business after his father became ill. In an essay he wrote in 2013 about his career in Homer journalism, Williams said he when he went to a Homer Chamber of Commerce meeting in 1974 to announce the sale of Modern Builders Supply, the owner of the Homer News, Linda Gjosund, told him she thought he should buy the paper.
“A month later, after ignoring fatherly advice to stick with what I knew, I negotiated terms with Linda and secured a signature loan from the bank,” he wrote.
Castner said he first met Williams as a customer at Quiet Sports, the outdoor gear store Castner owned with his wife, Nancy Lord. Sierra Fischback, Williams’ daughter, said her dad had always been physically active, playing golf, running and biking.
“It’s crazy. He was healthy as a horse, except he got cancer,” Fischback said.
Still, Williams was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2008. Told he might live five-to-seven years, he lasted 13.
Castner went to work with Williams at the Homer News, and later in 1975, writer Tom Kizzia joined the paper. Kizzia said he vividly remembers being offered the job of managing editor “in the light of the Inglima’s dairy case,” the former Homer grocery store that later became Proctor’s.
Castner, Lord and Kizzia had all attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Kizzia worked on the student paper there. Castner and Lord talked up Kizzia to Williams.
“‘We have this friend who actually knows something about newspapers,’” Kizzia said they told Williams.
Williams wanted to keep writing editorials and selling ads, which Kizzia said was fine with him because those were the two things he didn’t want to do. Kizzia wrote almost all the stories and brought in innovations like putting headlines on every story.
Kizzia said Williams didn’t have much journalism experience, but that “he had the innate sense of a newspaper in a community without actually having worked in newspapers before. … He did understand the function and importance of a paper as the general focus of the community.”
In 1976, Williams got elected mayor.
“It was a really important moment,” Kizzia said. “Before that it had been Hazel Heath, the good old boys and girls in Homer who ran the show at the city council.”
With his Lower 48 education, Williams brought a progressive perspective.
“He had a more modern view of the world,” Kizzia said. “He was plugged into the old, but also the new, which was a tourist economy to grow in Homer.”
In one instance, Williams vetoed a city council action to quit leasing city land on the Homer Spit for campgrounds and instead lease it for staging oil and gas exploration equipment. The mid-1970s had been rife with controversy over oil and gas leases in Kachemak Bay, an issue that became even more contentious when the jack-up rig George Ferris got stuck in Mud Bay.
“He (Williams) helped us into the next step, but the next step was always going to be to protect Kachemak Bay,” Castner said. “ … The whole thing about how they sold the leases in the bay was a crooked deal. There was not a lot of public notice to speak against them.”
Williams also led the city during the Club Bar incident, a dust up that came about when Homer artist Brad Hughes painted a mural of a phoenix on the front of the Club Bar — now Alice’s Champagne Palace — after the bar had been rebuilt following a fire. Hughes also painted two nudes of a man and a woman on the mural. Many in Homer took offense, but the issue became more contentious when the Rev. Gordon Winrod, a white supremacist, sent an antisemitic flyer accusing the Club Bar owner and others in Homer “of being part of a semitic cabal,” Williams wrote.
“He actually went up to the North Fork and confronted the Winrods and said, ‘You can’t be tearing the town apart like this,’” Castner said of Williams.
Williams allowed people to speak at a city council meeting that grew so big it had to move from city hall to Paul Banks Elementary School. Author Joe McGinnis wrote about the incident in a chapter of his Alaska book, “Going to Extremes.” The controversy got defused when a Homer man, Cliff Culkins, stood up and said, “I’d rather my children pass the painting on the club three or four times a day than be exposed to something like that letter once in their lives.”
“Then it was like the Holy Spirit descending; a sudden wind; the rush of catharsis,” Williams told McGinnis.
The Club Bar owner, Billie Bedsworth, agreed to paint over the nude parts of the painting.
Schmidt said her brother always strived to do something new, whether in personal fitness or new careers.
“That was his modus operandi,” she said. “ … He was always after something different.”
His daughter called Williams “very dignified.”
“Very conscientious about what was going on in the world, always caring about current events,” Fischback said. “Loved politics — very interested in politics. He read the newspaper every single day until the day he died.”
She also said Williams had been an amazing grandfather to her three girls. “He adored them and loved spending time with them,” Fischback said.
Her dad was “hard working and 100 percent committed to his work and his ideals,” she said. “He always worked his hardest to make those things happen, completely dedicated to whatever cause he was working on. For the better of the city of Homer and the whole area, I feel like he made a difference there.”
Williams is survived by his daughter, Sierra Fischback; his son Garret Williams; granddaughters, Kajsa, Odette and Adara; grandson, Malachi; sisters Bonnie Schram, Carol Schmidt, Joyce Haley and Judy McDaniel, and many nieces and nephews.
A memorial gathering is planned for this summer, with Williams’ ashes to be spread on the Homer Spit.