Former Seattle Times science reporter Hill Williams has died at age 91.

Share story

During more than four decades in journalism, Hill Williams made a habit of translating scientific topics into plain English, from the dawn of the Atomic Age to the moon landings and the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

“It isn’t often you live through a genuine scientific revolution,” Mr. Williams would write upon his retirement in 1991 after a long career at The Seattle Times. “But if you’re pushing 40 or older, you and I did.”

Mr. Williams, who also wrote books on geology, the Hanford nuclear site and his reflections on life as a reporter, died Thursday at the age of 91, said his wife, Mary Lou Williams.

John Hill Williams was born in Pasco in 1926. His first job was for his father, editor of the Pasco Herald newspaper.

Mr. Williams was witness to history early on when, as a senior in high school, an army officer asked his father, Hill Williams Sr., to not publish any news of the nuclear-weapons program taking shape nearby.

Williams Sr. agreed, a wartime concession of journalistic principles that he held to until the resulting atomic bombs were used to bring World War II to an end.

The junior Mr. Williams spent the later years of the war in Reserve Officer Training Corps at Whitman College, and, later, at the University of Washington, where he would earn a journalism degree.

Afterward, he walked into the Kennewick Courier-Reporter (later the Tri-City Herald) and got a job on the spot when another reporter the paper had hired didn’t show up. He spent much of his time there writing about the development of U.S. nuclear weapons and atomic-energy programs up the Columbia River at the Hanford site.

In 1952, Mr. Williams took a job at The Seattle Times, writing general news at first and later focusing on science, developing interests that ranged from geology to archaeology to space travel.

During a drive to church one day, he offered a ride to a young woman, the former Mary Lou Corbett. They would marry and raise five children together in their Shoreline home, a place that became a hub of activity for neighborhood kids.

Mr. Williams was a scoutmaster for years for Boy Scout Troop 319.

“One of the things that has been the most striking to me is the number of comments our children have gotten — mostly from young men who say that he was like a second father,” Mary Lou Williams said. “They really all felt like he made them feel loved, and happy and important.”

Mr. Williams also covered the sea change in Earth sciences that led to modern plate- tectonics theory. He would see that in action in covering the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens and its aftermath, including taking a trip into the crater not long after the eruption.

“I think I got a few gray hairs after I found out about that,” Mary Lou Williams said.

After retiring from The Seattle Times in 1991, Mr. Williams kept writing, authoring books on Northwest geology, the Hanford project and, last month, “Writing the Northwest: A Reporter Looks Back.”

He also volunteered with the Shoreline Police Department and stayed active gardening. To his chagrin, the climate never cooperated enough to meet his ambitions to grow watermelons, Mary Lou Williams said.

In a column upon his retirement from the Times, Mr. Williams marveled at the pace of change in science and technology during his lifetime and his good fortune to chronicle so much of it.

His grandmother, he wrote, remembered her father returning home from the Civil War. His mother was the first in her family to see an airplane.

“In an almost unbelievable compression of events into three lifetimes,” He said. “It’s been a fascinating, exciting time.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Williams is survived by a daughter, Mary, of Lynnwood, and sons Hill Jr. and Tom, of Mountlake Terrace, Joe, of Kirkland, and Mike, of Moses Lake, and 12 grandchildren. He also is survived by sisters Jane Pugel and Mary Williams.

A funeral Mass is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Luke Church in Shoreline.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations be made to the St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Luke Church, or the St. Luke Church.