Thursday, June 13, 2013

Bill Workman, longtime Chronicle reporter who was 'larger than life,' dead at 77

Bill Workman, an award-winning San Francisco Chronicle reporter who covered the Peninsula for decades, has died after a nearly year-long battle with prostate cancer. He was 77.

He died early Tuesday morning after watching his beloved Boston Red Sox beat the Tampa Bay Rays 10-8 in extra innings the night before, his wife, Marla Lowenthal, told the Post yesterday.

“I am positive that’s what did it,” Lowenthal said. “He watched the Red Sox win and I know he thought to himself ‘I can die happy now.’”

Workman was diagnosed with Stage Four prostate cancer last October and doctors gave him only two months to live.

Lowenthal recalled Workman saying that it wasn’t enough time and vowing to hang on as long as he could.

“He never, ever lost his spirit,” she said. “He was the same old Bill all the way to the end.”

Workman’s longtime friend Marshall Wilson, president of the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club, which Workman helped to build, said the journalist was “larger than life.”

“He was a legend around the county,” Wilson said. “He seemed to know everybody and he knew the history of every place he went.”

Born William Spears Workman, Jr., on May 20, 1936, in Malden, Mass., he graduated from Malden High School in 1954 and immediately joined the army. After the Army, he studied journalism at Boston University where he graduated in 1961. He worked briefly as a reporter for the Albany, N.Y., Knickerbocker News and the Boston Globe before moving West to work for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1970.

He covered many major news stories from the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident in which a female passenger was killed when U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge to the 1976 Chowchilla kidnappings in which 26 school children were abducted and imprisoned in a buried bus.

Lowenthal said Workman threw himself fully into his work and that he loved everything about being a journalist.

“We had that old time 1940s or 50s view of a reporter fighting the extremists and fascists, but every one loved him,” Lowenthal said. “When you visualize an old school reporter with the press sign in his hat — that was Bill.”

She recalled his 1974 coverage of the Patty Hearst kidnapping and said Workman had a way with sources.

“After that, he was on personal terms with Patty Hearst and could call her whenever he wanted and she’d take his calls,” Lowenthal said. “Like when she played a voice on Frasier.”

She said in 1984 he made multiple TV appearances on local news stations and Court TV during his coverage of the Billionaire Boys Club scandal, a story involving an investment-and-social club that got wrapped up in Ponzi schemes and murder.

For many years Workman served as president of the Peninsula Press Club, a social club for news professionals throughout the Bay Area to come together and share their ideas and opinions on the day’s news.

Wilson, who currently is president of the club, said Workman had a way with words that made him stand out among his peers.

“I remember an article he wrote about a man who was 79 years old and made miniature ships,” Wilson said. “Bill wrote this line about how the rigging lines were the size of gnats and the pulleys were the size of a match head. It’s just such a great example of his visual writing.”

While at the Chronicle, Workman reported on various beats, including city hall. He was on the Oakland night beat for a while and was a general reporter before focusing on the Peninsula and Stanford.

Lowenthal said she met him in 1990 when he was in charge of the Chronicle’s Peninsula bureau, covering government, Stanford, crime and various other stories. She said he was one of the first reporters covering the first attempt by the 49ers to move to Santa Clara.

For five years he had his own column “Along the El Camino” covering stories and unusual people on the Peninsula. “He had the unique ability to find interesting, quirky people doing extraordinary things,” Wilson said. “He loved life, and it was infectious.”

In addition to his wife, Workman is survived by his son, Joshua Workman, of Fairfax. He was preceded in death by his parents William Spears Workman and Anne Utley and sisters Lillian Pearson and Catherine Moore.

A memorial service will be held on July 7 at the Kings Mountain Community Center from 2 to 6 p.m.

(Written by Jeramy Gordon, associate editor of the Palo Alto Daily Post.)

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