When NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was a boy, his father would hustle him into a car whenever a fire would blaze in Elmira, N.Y., to watch from a safe distance as the town's local heroes went into action.
"There were some big fires in my town when I was a kid,” recalls Williams, 47. "Elmira lost half a city block on a winter night. I was downtown watching that fire and that was the night that sealed it for me: I wanted to be one of those firefighters.”
During the 1970s and '80s, Williams did indeed serve as a voluntary fireman in New Jersey, forging a bond so strong that a 1976 photo of himself with his fellow firefighters, displayed in his office today at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York, serves as a touchstone as he prepares to deliver each day's news.
"That is my roots,” he says of the photo. "A group of firefighters is going to give you a far different opinion about what they are worried about than I will get with the person I am having lunch with today in mid-town Manhattan.”
While he's no longer dashing into burning buildings, today Williams covers fires—literally and figuratively—around the world as the nation's most-watched news anchor. According to Nielsen Media Research, his nightly NBC broadcast is the largest single daily source of news in America.
"Brian is smart, curious and tenacious—an invaluable combination for any reporter,” says Meet the Press host Tim Russert. Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw says Williams is an excellent journalist because of "his commitment to a serious examination of the most important issues of our time, however complex or difficult to explain they may be.”
Williams, the managing editor as well as anchor of NBC Nightly News, sits on a small sofa as he talks so he can simultaneously converse and watch the six television screens in his office. It's another whirlwind day in the Middle East, and he's concerned about the safety of NBC correspondents in Beirut and the Gaza Strip. He stands ready to be dispatched to one hot spot or another on short notice, though he still has to accomplish the daily tasks of a family man, which last night included a grocery store run that was delayed because he'd forgotten the list his out-of-town wife left him.
Just like his viewers
"People should know I am probably more like them than they've thought,” says Williams, a devoted NASCAR fan. "I know exactly who our viewers are and I think I know their sensibilities because I am one of them, and I come from a family of them, and my friends are our viewers.”
Williams and his wife, Jane, have a 16-year-old son, Douglas, and a daughter, Allison, 18, who just left for college. He commutes to New York every day from his home in Connecticut, in a town he doesn't disclose for security reasons.
"I didn't complete college. I had kind of a classic, middle-class upbringing,” he says. "I suppose if I have a prejudice, it is that I tend to find the self-made in American society more interesting than those who perhaps woke up to a fortune at birth.”
Williams was born in Elmira (pop. 30,940), where his father worked as a marketing executive for Corning Glass Works and his mother stayed at home with four children. He knew at a young age that he wanted to be a journalist, watching in awe as Walter Cronkite delivered each day's news to the nation.
"I couldn't imagine imparting groundbreaking information to viewers at home and faraway places,” he says. "It just gnawed at me that I wanted to know so badly what it was like in a network newsroom.” His family moved to Middletown, N.J. (pop. 66,327), when he was 10, and he could see the lights atop the World Trade Center towers from his street on clear evenings. "They were always kind of our north star,” Williams recalls.
He attended George Washington University and the Catholic University in America, both in Washington, D.C., where he interned at the White House during President Carter's administration. He had to drop out of college for financial reasons.
Broke and dejected
In 1982, he landed a $174-a-week job at TV station KOAM in Pittsburg, Kan. (pop. 19,243), but he was anything but natural when he delivered his first on-air reports. "My mind was writing checks my body couldn't cash,” he says. "I just looked like you had pulled a citizen off the street and gave him a job in TV.”
The job in Kansas didn't pan out, and Williams found himself looking for work again a year later. He couldn't find a TV station anywhere that would even consider him, and interest from his college debt was piling up. "It was very hard,” he says. "I went for long periods without money. I lived for seven years of my life without health insurance. I missed meals because I couldn't afford them. My family was worried about me. They thought I had made a pretty weird decision to go and try my hand at television.”
Dejected and broke, he moved back to Washington, D.C., and gratefully accepted an off-air spot at local TV station WTTG, typing onscreen graphics for newscasts. One day, the station's news director, Betty Endicott, asked Williams to bring her some videotapes of his previous on-camera work.
"I didn't know where they were,” Williams recalls. "I had put them away and declared them part of a failed experiment.”
Endicott put him back in front of the camera and gave him some advice that he still remembers each night. "I owe Betty chiefly for telling me to envision a group of people at the other end of the lens,” he says. "They include immediate family, living and dead, and a kind of hard-of-hearing neighbor next door, precocious young children I know who love news. It includes a harried mother of three who is trying to get food on the table while trying to catch up on the news of the day.”
Taking Tom Brokaw's seat
After Washington came jobs at CBS-affiliated stations in Philadelphia and New York. Williams joined NBC News in 1993 as a reporter, traveling the world to cover virtually every breaking news story. He was named anchor in 2004 when Tom Brokaw stepped down. "The moral of my story is there is nothing more powerful than an American armed with a dream,” he says. "Here I am, having the audacity to set my sights on one job, one occupation, when I was back in Elmira at a single-digit age. Here I am. This is an outlandish story, and trust me, this could only happen in the United States.”
Although he received the George Foster Peabody Award, television's highest honor, in June for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina's destruction, the four-time Emmy winner remains focused not on the accolades, but his responsibilities—as a journalist, citizen, husband and father.
"Life has really smiled upon me and I am the recipient of great good fortune,” he says. "I think I will be judged more by the children I raise than what I do on camera. I define myself much more as a citizen outside of those windows than I do a television anchor inside this building. It is how more people know me, but it's not how I am known inside my house.
"I have achieved more than I ever thought possible in my lifetime. My only problem is the kind of guilt I feel: Will I ever be able to appropriately thank the people who made it possible?”