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Journalism, A Love Story: The Kansas City Star's Mará Rose Williams

Paul Andrews
Mará Rose Williams at work in her cubicle at 18th and Grand."

Mará Rose Williams is a reporter for The Kansas City Star. And though her beat is technically higher education, for Williams, it's all about love.

"I really love people," she says. "And my job, I look at it as an opportunity every day to fall in love."

She says that when she meets someone whose story she loves, it gives her the same euphoric feeling as a romantic flame being kindled.

For example, there was the girl she covered who was blind, and wanted to run track for her middle school.

"She ran tethered at first with her coach, through the community," Williams recalls. "And then I was there for a track meet. She ran like the wind. She came in last, didn't matter. When she got to the end of the track...," she pauses. "I'm getting choked up just thinking about it."

Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com
At the Kansas City Star Building and outside of it, Mará Rose Williams is a part of her community.

Williams says connecting with the people whose stories she will share with a wider audience is a privilege, but also a huge responsibility.

"Driving back to the office, I'm praying, 'God help me tell the story the way it needs to be told.' And I've done that many, many times. 'Please let me give the reader what I got.' Sometimes I nail it, and sometimes we do fall short."

Her love affair with journalism isn't just about the people whose stories she tells. She also met her late husband in the newsroom at Newsday, where they both worked. That's where they held their wedding reception, too. 

"We called the office and said, 'Yeah, we're not coming in tomorrow because we're gonna go get married.' My boss at the time said 'It'd be great if you told your kids some day you got married and then you came to work,'" she says with a laugh. "That's how it was -- they didn't even want to give you a day."

The couple's introduction was all-business. Mará was frantic and on deadline. Smoking had just been banned in the office, and she was desperate for a cigarette. Cesar Williams was new on staff, and "he never met a stanger," she says.

So here comes the new guy wanting to chat.

"I just didn't have time," she says. 

When Cesar died in 2010, her older son, Trey, was a freshman in college. Her younger son, Jordan, was just 14. Sending Jordan off to Vanderbilt University this fall has been hard for Williams, but at the same time, it's a joyful moment that represents success above all else.

At Mará Rose Williams' desktop computer at the Kansas City Star, a screensaver shows the two grown sons who are never out of mind for the reporter.
Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com
Williams' sons are prominently featured on her work desktop.

"I used to say, if I can raise one African-American male child in this world beyond 21, I will have been a successful parent," she confesses. "I mean, let's face it, there was a time when young black men didn't live past 21, that was the conversation at the time, so I felt like, if I can do that, I will have been successful ... But then I had Jordan, he came along and I did it twice!"

Williams' father was an immigrant from Jamaica. He came to the United States stowed away on a boat, and he arrived with the equivalent of an 8th grade education. He persevered, working on farms and going to school at the same time until he was able to become an engineer.

As for her mother, she was coal-miner's daughter from Appalachia.

"Education was a big deal in our house. It was never even a thought that you weren't going to go to college."

When Williams decided to become a journalist, her mom supported her.

"She said, 'You're nosy, you always want to know what's going on, and you can't keep a secret, you're always telling people's business. You need to be a journalist.'"

Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com

  Since then, Williams has blazed a lot of trails.

Her first job was in West Virginia, covering crime on the night shift. There weren't many women in the newsroom, and she was the only African-American woman. The police world she reported on was all men at the time as well. Showing up at crime scenes in the South as a 21-year-old African-American woman from New York, she wasn't sure how she would be received. But although she occasionally had to remind the officers that she was there to do a job, as a reporter, and not to flirt, she did earn their trust and eventually, they began lifting the tape to let her in when she arrived -- something she says would never happen today.

But even in today's world, she says it makes a difference, she says, to cover news with her background. 

That was evident to her recently, when the Star covered modern-day slave trade. The paper was about to go to press with a headline that read, The New Slavery. When Williams saw that headline, she went knocking on her editor's door. 

Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com

To her, the implication was that we don't need to talk about the old slavery any more, because his is the slavery that matters to us now. She recommended a simple change: going from The New Slavery to A New Slavery, assuring her editor that the tiny change -- just one word -- would make a difference.

And so, the love story continues.

Portrait Sessionsare intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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