Fred Willis

A FORMER Harrogate councillor and Assistant Editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post, Frederick George Willis – Fred to all who knew him – began his career as a 15-year-old tea boy in a newspaper office.

His parents, Fred and Dorothy Willis, were civil servants in Leeds, and their only child grew up in Bramley. His path into journalism began when he joined the Northern Echo’s Ripon office straight from school.

Three years later, clearly having eavesdropped on a few conversations and written several stories he had stumbled on, Mr Willis moved to the York Evening Press as a reporter.

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From there he got a job with the now-defunct Evening News in Trinity Street, Leeds, and having proved his worth as a writer after only 17 months, he landed a job as a roving reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post, covering the Pudsey area of Leeds.

His reference from the editor of the Evening News described him as an excellent news and feature writer who frequently beat the rival newspaper – the Yorkshire Evening Post – to stories, and he predicted a “very long and successful career in journalism”.

At the Mecca Ballroom in Leeds which was run by Mr (now Sir) Jimmy Savile, he met Margaret Hudson, and they were married in 1966 at St Peter’s Church, Bramley.

Their daughter Helen was born in 1967 and son Richard in 1970.

During his time at the YEP, Mr Willis quickly made his mark, and rose through the ranks from reporter, to sub-editor, to news editor and finally assistant editor, earning the confidence of a succession of editors.

Quietly insistent, he did not accept the second rate, but if he ever became exasperated, there was never any hint of it; his was an urbane, cool presence on the editorial floor. His commitment and skills on the news desk earned him the respect of colleagues, as did his coverage of tennis, squash and football.

He played squash to a very high standard at Armley Squash Club and, in 2009, was presented with an award for his outstanding contribution to squash from the English Squash and Racketball Association.

His career at the YEP came to an abrupt halt 16 years ago when a cycling accident resulted in a lengthy spell in intensive care in Harrogate and Killingbeck hospitals.

He pulled through against the odds, showing great courage and determination and after 12 months’ rehabilitation, took up freelance writing, from news stories to theatre reviews and football coverage.

He was a lifelong supporter of Leeds United and was a regular at Elland Road where he often took his children, Helen and Richard, on a Saturday afternoon when they were young. Latterly, he reported on Harrogate Town.

He and the family moved from Alwoodley, Leeds, to Harrogate in 1973 so his children could receive better schooling.

Never content to be sitting doing nothing, Mr Willis soon became an active member of the community and in August 1980, together with his friends Cliff Trotter and the late Bryn Powell, founded Pannal Ash Junior Football Club.

The team played under a street lamp at first and used nets given to them by Leeds United. As well as coaching and managing, Mr Willis became a qualified referee and was called upon for many years to turn out with his whistle on a Sunday. The club is still going strong today and has one of the largest memberships in Harrogate, with several teams of boys aged five to 16.

Mr Willis liked to keep fit and was a regular at his local gym, went running and walked everywhere he could. He rarely drank, save for a shandy at Christmas, and never smoked.

He enjoyed the countryside and hoped to retire, eventually, to his weekend retreat in Grewelthorpe, near Masham, but remained in Harrogate for the sake of the family.

When away from home, he was never far from the telephone, ringing newspapers with match reports and stories. He also wrote a book Grewelthorpe Reflections about the village he loved. His family will scatter his ashes on Dallowgill Moor, above Masham, where he and Margaret spent many hours walking and taking in the scenery.

Mr Willis was passionate about politics, and it was little surprise to family and friends when he became a Conservative councillor for the Pannal ward in Harrogate.

He served the ward for 12 years from 1998 until ill health forced him to stand down. He often returned the highest majority in the district, and served the people well in his kindly and unflustered way, working tirelessly for the community.

Mr Willis, 69, is survived by his wife Margaret and their children Helen and Richard and four grandchildren.