Cheryl Wills (39408)

Don’t let the smooth and mellow news anchor delivery fool you. Get NY1 news veteran Cheryl Wills talking about the suffering and sacrifice of her enslaved African ancestors, and there’s a passion unleashed like you wouldn’t believe.

If you know NY1, you’ll instantly recognize Cheryl Wills. She has been at the Time Warner Cable flagship news station since it launched in 1992. From political heads to medical innovators to fashion mavens, Wills has put her stamp on it.

Chatting with Wills reveals three immediate goals: to continue to deliver the news in an impactful manner, to show young people through example and constant mentoring that their ambition and dedication should be the only limits to their goals and to let the world know about the courage and heroism of her great-great-great grandfather, Sandy Wills, a Civil War soldier.

All will be revealed in her upcoming book. Wills is paying homage in her about-to-be-completed biography to her great-great-great grandfather, a runaway slave who joined the United States Colored Troops in Tennessee during the Civil War.

She is dedicating the book to her late father, Clarence, a vet and city firefighter. In researching the life of Sandy Wills, she went through reams and reams of age-old documents and found “Wills after Wills after Wills…tracing all the way up to my dad.”

Born and raised in Queens, Wills wanted to find out about her complete heritage. Tennessee and New York she knows about. But what else is there?

“I have people like Sidique Wai, national president of the United African Congress, tell me that I am from Senegal, and I believe it.”

She intends to make that beautiful journey “home.” She was waiting, she explained, until her son Johnny was old enough to appreciate the journey.

“Now he’s 12, and I know he can remember it. We’re going to plan it.”

Excitedly, Wills leaves the NY1 office, returning momentarily with a whole armful of files, records and CDS from the National Archives. Accumulating all that vital intelligence cost over a $1,000, but was worth every penny, she assured, as it has altered her life and will impact that of her own family and any and everyone inspired to research their own family roots.

Sold at 10 years old, Sandy Wills escaped the Wills plantation with four of his “brothers.”

One of the evil techniques of enslavers was always to “break the family unit.” This meant that enslaved Africans embraced “siblings” where ever they were able, adapted and kept it moving. Wills clasped the records of all five brothers burned onto CDs, detailing the history of them: being sold to Edmund Wills and the triumph of their escape in the middle of the night in 1863, after which they went into the United States Colored Troops; their official discharge pages; and the depositions enabling pensions to be granted in the light of government resistance.

Then there is great-great-great-grandma Emma. “I get chocked up when I think about her,” said Will, the wife to John and mom to 12-year-old Johnny Singleton III. “She was a strong, independent woman. She had nine children. She could not read, but she made sure that all her children could read and write.”

And when the government said they knew no Sandy Wills, Ms. Emma hired herself a lawyer, “and she fought for his pension. There was deposition after deposition because they had the name wrong. But people came forward and said that they knew Sandy Wills. They said, ‘We were at their wedding,’ and ‘I grew up with them.’”

She taps the huge file on the table proudly. “This is for all the descendants of slavery so that they can see.”

The multi-award-winning journalist is as excited by her upcoming endeavor as she is her career.

“We don’t do scandal at NY1,” Wills smiles. “We stick to facts, and I’m happy about that.”

While the “news is the news,” she is no talking head, but her intent is to always “read the news straight” without bias or obvious inflection.

“When I was in college, I wanted to go into journalism because I love the structure and the mechanics of writing,” says the graduate of the famed Newhouse School at Syracuse University. “When you’re in broadcasting, it becomes a picture and sound story and writing becomes almost secondary.”

That’s one of the drawbacks, she says, laughing.

There are others.

“Journalists have to always look out, because it’s easy to slip into a comfort zone and forget that you’re supposed to be objective and just report the news. Now we’re living in a medium where you become rich and famous by injecting your bias. I absolutely, categorically reject that. “I will never inject my opinion in to a story.

Passionately adamant and while certain recent current affairs stories aren’t far from the conversation, Wills declared, “I don’t care what witch hunt is going on, I am not going to take part with a snide comment. I am going to report it straight down the middle. You at home make your comments. But I’m not going to egg you on or try and incite you to anger. No, I’m not.”

Take a Tiger Woods case, for example, “You know I’d say: ‘Tiger Woods plans to hold his first press conference,’ rather than, ‘Oh, guess who’s finally going to talk to the media?’ It’s very easy to do and you see it everyday, but here at NY1, we stay away from that opinionated type of reporting. And I’m glad to be here for that, for the general news hour after hour. I am pleased to be able to just report it as it happens rather than getting on the media bandwagon with these lynchings of people destroying their lives and careers with pieces of scandal and gossip.”

The temptations may be apparent, but sidestepping is a talent to cherish in your arsenal.

“There’s tremendous competition, but as a real reporter, you have to maintain the journalistic integrity that our profession was founded on,” Wills proclaimed. “I am an African-American woman, and I’m so grateful for the journalists at the turn of the century who reported it as it was when there were all kinds of newspapers that were distorting the entire situation, saying they are freeing slaves and the slaves are going to come and get us. This shows you how important is responsibility to the people and that we must tell it to them straight. Don’t inject your fears into the news; just report the news and people will come to their own conclusion.”

So when she finds a story that she’s particularly invested in, how does she approach it?

“Objectively, and that’s very important because even though I am passionate about a lot of issues–I am passionate about women’s issues, and it’s very important to me that children live without violence, and I give back to a lot of schools–when I’m reporting on issues, I am just reporting it. I’m thinking, ‘Aww, can you believe what happened to this child,’ but I can’t say that. It’s in the way you’d write it. It’s in the delivery and with the priority you give to the facts.”

Budding journos wanting to follow in Wills’ well-heeled footsteps must, she advised, “Go to college and then they should go into newsrooms and make connections and decide what it is in this business that they want to do. Not everybody is going to be an anchor; some people are going to be behind the scenes. Some people have sharp minds. The real power is behind the camera because they shape the content of the news.”

Wills has seniority at the cable news station. “I came to NY1 before NY1 was NY1 in the summer of 1992. I lucked out. In the average newsroom, you walk in and you’re the new kid on the block,” she said. “So, I’m in a very unique position. Anyone who wants to follow in my footsteps should forge ahead with confidence. It can be a very intimidating business and when you’re on the outside, it seems impossible to break into. Of course, you can break in to it, but you’ve got to take baby steps–especially in New York. It is so competitive. You’re not just going to leap into the anchor seat or the news director’s seat or become a top writer at the Amsterdam News. You’re not just going to walk into these jobs. You’ve got to take it step by step.”

Some of the young people seem to harbor an “I want it, I should have it now” attitude, that Wills says has to be handled with a reality check.

“That’s one if the generational characteristics–they want everything right now because they are dealing with the media where everything is instant and they think their jobs and their careers should be instant. They should prepare to take the small steps to get to their goal. And they should learn the business. Whether it is print or broadcast, it takes time to learn the business. You don’t come out of English class knowing how to write for a newspaper or a television station because they don’t teach you that in English. They teach you the basics. To write for the media is a completely different animal.”

And don’t get her talking about the Children’s Storefront in Harlem. She raises money for the independent, tuition-free school. “There’s no testing. It is K through 8. It’s amazing, and the children are treated like the precious souls they are. I bring the children to NY1. I always bring them here so they can see what a television station looks like. I don’t want them to ever think that’s not for you because that is pervasive. You see all these young women having children out of wedlock and putting their dreams on hold at 14 because they think that downtown is off limits, and that is why I bring them here.”

Doctor Wells–she has an honorary doctorate degree from New York College of Health Professions–continued, “This is not off limits to you. I got in here; you can get in here. If it’s a television station, a hospital–you can do it. And sometimes, that’s all they need to see.”

Just honored with the Carl T. Rowan Leadership in Media Award during the 25th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Awards ceremony and a Black History Month in 2010 McDonald’s Broadcasting Legend Award, Wills laughs, “I love what I do. I couldn’t see me doing anything else.”

Wills gets close to misty-eyed when she talks about her father, Clarence Wills, a Vietnam vet who became the first Black firefighter to integrate the oldest engine company in New York, Engine 1, Ladder 24 in Manhattan. He was killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 38.

“An endearing memory of my father was when I was little, he asked what I wanted to do and I said, ‘I want to be the person who tells the story of people and write it.’ He said, ‘You mean a journalist.’”

That was all the blessing and motivation she needed. The rest–as they say–is history, and a modern-day griot and a mentor was born.

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