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David J. Willmott, Sr., Suffolk Life Newspapers Publisher, Dies At 71

Originally Posted: August 12, 2009

Andrea Aurichio

  |   25 Comments · Print Article

Southampton - Suffolk Life Newspapers publisher and Editor-in-Chief David J. Willmott, Sr. died on Aug. 9 at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. Willmott, a larger-than-life figure in the news business in Suffolk County, was 71-years old. He lived in Southampton, and Palm City, FL.

Willmott was a self-styled journalist of the old school who started his own weekly newspaper on the kitchen table in his parents' home on Roanoke Avenue in Riverhead when he was in his early 20s. The paper was devoted to the triumphs and tragedies of his friends and neighbors. Willmott wanted a newspaper that put the ordinary guy's face on the front page and celebrated Main Street. He did this for more than 50 years - making friends and foes along the way for his courageous opinions and outspoken ways. He was a big man with a head of red hair who liked to spend time on his boat fishing or lampooning the establishment. His boat, the Y Knot plied the waters of the Shinnecock proudly displaying "Peconic County" as its home port.

Willmott was a firm believer in home rule and local government. He advocated the creation of "Peconic County" for years once the population in western Suffolk put the East End at a disadvantage. The creation of the Suffolk County Legislature ended the "one man, one vote" form of government that had prevailed in Suffolk for years when a Board of Supervisors ruled. This system put the supervisors of each of the county's 10 towns on a par with one another, which was thrown off-kilter by the legislature where "Westies" ruled. This was an anathema to Willmott, a true native son of the East End.

He did not believe in the cult of celebrity at all. He did, however, believe in the pursuit of truth and justice as he fearlessly tangled with political leaders in the five East End towns, frequently taking up unpopular positions as he bucked the establishment for the little guy. Brookhaven Town officials angered by his political stance in the 1970s tried to have his free circulation weekly papers declared litter within their borders. Willmott laughed it off and kept publishing. He remained true to his views, ultimately becoming a weather vane for the electorate each November when his famous endorsements came out. It was a badge of honor or a sign of disgrace, depending on your point of view, to get a favorable nod from Willmott before voters went to the polls each year.

Suffolk Life Newspapers grew to occupy this facility in Riverhead during its heyday. Photo by Joe Pinciaro


Eventually Willmott became an establishment of his own as his original one page paper grew and he moved to a larger facility on Montauk Highway in Westhampton Beach. As his readership grew and the years passed, the Willmott chain of weekly newspapers set up headquarters in a gargantuan building on Route 58 in Riverhead. The operation was forced to shut down just last year due to failing circulation and Willmott's declining health. The advent of the Internet, online news services and sky-rocketing production costs all eventually conspired against him as the industry changed with the times. Willmott, in an interview with Hamptons.com last year, declared the day he stopped publishing Suffolk Life as "the saddest day of my life."

He graciously gave interviews as he went into retirement, returning calls when he was able. His reported his proudest accomplishment as a newsman was his unrelenting fight against the construction of a nuclear power plant on the shores of the Long Island Sound in Jamesport. The movement to "Stop the Jamesport Nuclear Power Plant" in the late 1970s raged on for nearly a decade before the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) abandoned their plan. Willmott's role in the fight, backed by the full sway and influence of his publications, attracted the attention of The New York Times. The story traveled around the world and became the subject of books written on the topic.

Suffolk Life was a stomping ground and training school for many young journalists who found their way to Willmott's office on the Highway in Westhampton. The always busy Willmott spent a lot of time in his office, where he kept his head down working for hours before he would surface, sometimes strolling over to his newsroom to see what was going on.

"Stick around," he would say, "we'll talk about this later." He would buy lunch for the entire staff at least once a week. Sometimes huge buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken made the rounds, other times pizza or six-foot sandwiches were the feast de jour for his reporters, advertising sales reps and production staff. Reporters logged miles as they drove around the East End from town to town covering Little League games, town hall meetings and chicken barbeques that highlight the everyday lives of the regular people that were Willmott's faithful readers.

He wrote his own editorials dubbed "Willmott's" and "Why Nots" ending each of his opinionated segments with his famous "and why not?"

When he closed up shop and put out his last newspaper in 2008, he knew he had quite a ride. "I enjoyed every minute of it," Willmott said and laughed, adding for one last time, "and why not?"

Willmott is survived by his long-time companion, Claire Swanik of Southampton and Florida; his three sons, David J. Willmott, Jr. and his wife Patrice of Hampton Bays, Jonathan Willmott and his wife Linda McMahon of Virginia, and Michael Willmott of East Quogue; and a daughter, Melissa Willmott and her husband John Stotzky of Hampton Bays.

He is also survived by a sister, Margaret Callahan of Oregon; three grandsons, David J. Willmott III, Brennan Willmott-McMahon, and Ryan Willmott; and six granddaughters, Shannon Willmott, Theresa Willmott McMahon, Madison Willmott and Katelyn, Riley and Ella Stotzky. Willmott is survived by his former wife, Nancy Welden of Calverton. He was predeceased by his sister, Maureen Murphy.

Funeral services are scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 13. Visitation will be held at the Brockett Funeral Home in Southampton on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12.




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Guest (Pamela) from Huntington Station says::
I really miss the Suffolk Life. It was such a special newspaper! warm and knowledgeable articles were always found. I am looking for an old issue printed Jan. 13, 1999. In particular the people of the year article. The citizen of the year was my old and dear family doctor. Dr. Nicola Muia. It had a pic of him and i would love to have the article.
Dec 21, 2016 5:45 pm

Guest (Jennifer) from Carey says::
I served with David as a fellow delegate to the White House Comference on Small Business back in the 1990's and just found his old card when going though some papers and thought of him. I checked the Internet to see how or what he was doing and found out unfortunately that he had passed. He was a one of a kind American and I am so sad to hear he is gone. His stock of red hair and his pithy remarks always made our delegation think and my thoughts are with his family who will always feel that loss. May he rest in peace.
Aug 2, 2014 8:21 am

Guest (matt aug) from chapel hill, nc says::
enjoyed reading michael willmott's recollections and opportunity to be the paper's first, last and perhaps only sports editor. miss big dave, lou grasso and thank my brother dan aug for everything too. Suffolk Life was the little big paper that could and did!
Sep 2, 2013 10:48 am

Guest (Mike) from Phillipburg, Missouri says::
Agreed with Ron T. The only paper I always trusted for the truth. I would like to know how to retrieve any archival photos from the Flight 800 tragedy over Moriches Bay.
Jun 28, 2013 5:24 pm

Guest (Ron T) from Holbrook says::
Still to this day I miss that newspaper and Dave's "Willmott's" and "Why Nots" Don't know why I was thinking about it but the Suffolk Life just popped into my mind so I came across this page. There will never be a truer paper or editor like it.
Mar 21, 2013 11:10 pm

Guest (John w. Bugler) from Oakdale, NY says::
Some say there is no such thing as a irreplaceable person. I say sorry to be the one to tell you this --Dave is irreplaceable . Heis and was a shooting star -- one of which comes by every 1000 years. Thank you Dave for shining your light on those of us seeking to help long islanders achieve a better life. Bugler.org
Apr 10, 2012 10:17 pm

Guest (karen) from suffolk county NY says::
what ever became of the charity orgainization that was run from the suffolk life building (i believe it was called 'the group'?) thanks karen karenhi0315@gmail.com
Nov 28, 2011 1:28 pm

Guest (Carol) from Oakdale says::
I still miss my favorite newspaper,Suffolk Life, and Mr. Wilmott. In fact both crossed my mind a few moments ago so I Googled and found this. This is a nice page. Keep it going. The great thing about people as creative and True as Mr. Wilmott is that they never really leave us. They live on in fond memories. And he does.
Jun 23, 2011 5:16 pm

Guest (Michael Willmott) from Home says::
My Father was a great man, I did not always understand his ways or his actions. As his son I did not always agree with him. My Dad touched many lives with his articles. My Dad taught me many things about life and how to live. I find my self on most days asking him what would Dad do. There is not a day that goes by that I dont think about him. Dad I miss you. On this Father's Day make sure you tell your Dad how much you love him. Happy Fathers Day Dad, I miss you and love you
Jun 14, 2011 10:31 am

Guest (Guest) from East Quogue says::
I Miss My Grandpa Every time i see a picture of him or pass by suffolk life a tear just rolls down my face. When ever someone says im sorry that your grandfather passed i think he is not dead he is always in my heart & he is on a long vaction & when i take a long vaction he will be taking one with me I love yu Grandpa & yu are the best grandpa anyone could have. I remeber those times when we were in your back yard on christmas eve & we used to feed the deer together i remembered when you gave the best hugs ever. i love you & always will i miss yu.<3333 Willmotts & why nots? Well I am a willmott so why not?
Dec 3, 2010 6:49 pm

Guest (Natalie Zindl Dangelo) from Shoreham, NY says::
Wilmott gave me my first job as well after staying home for 8 years to raise my children. Today I am a successful Senior Designer for American Express and without Wilmott opening the door for me and having his great staff who talk me Quark and Photoshop, I do not think I would be where I am today. Working back on the Easy End of Long Island would be a dream! I miss those days! N Zindl-D'Angelo
May 14, 2010 3:03 pm

Guest (Ruthann Panipinto) from Austin, TX says::
David Willmott gave me my first job out of college - he gave me my first chance to work! He ALWAYS pushed all of us to do our best although I did not appreciate that very much at the time...LOL He was ALWAYS there - in his office not out on the golf course - his head to the grindstone at his desk, or debating issues with the reporters or local politicians in the newsroom. If you needed to talk to him about anything – literally anything - his door was always open no matter who you were. I recall moving to the big building on 58 and it was an exciting time for us all! We definitely were a family - all of us staff- whether you like it or not, dysfunctional or functional...LOL...take it or leave it - everyone worked together! My most memorable lessons however, had to do with the Christmas "Secret Santa" deliveries. I never forgot doing those. They were SO exciting! They made you forget all about getting and ONLY think about GIVING! They also made you realize how much you had and that you always had SOMETHING to give someone. That was the best lesson I ever learned from Dave Willmott...and that lesson was the most important one. And why not?
Apr 27, 2010 9:34 am

Guest (JOHN W. BUGLER) from OAKDALE, NEW YORK says::
THIS MAN WOULD CRAWL THRU A MINEFIELD TO HELP A FALLEN IN NEED. IN THIS WRITERS VIEW HE WAS A OBIE ONE KNOBE KIND OF GUY. RIGHT OUT OF STAR WARS. HE NEVER RAN FROM A FIGHT WHEN HE BELIEVED HIS CAUSE WAS TRUE. HE WAS FEARLESS TO A FAULT. THIS DAY OUR FAMILY IS SENDING A STIPEND TO THE CAPACHIN FRANSCISCAN MISSIONS AND REQUESTING A 30 MASS GREGORIAN SERIES BE OFFERED IN HIS BEHALF JUST IN CASE HE IS A PLACE OF WAITING. WE FEEL THAT MOST OF US WHO DIE IN GOD'S FRIENDSHIP WILL SPEND SOME TIME THERE. HE LOVED HIS WORK AND HE LOVED LONG ISLAND. I REMEMBER HE WENT TO WESTHAMPTON AIR PORT TO PICK UP SENATOR JOHN KENEDY IN 1960 AND DRIVE HIM TO THE COMMACK ARENA. DAVE HAD AN OLD CADDY CONVERTABLE IN THOSE DAYS. HE WILL NOT BE SOON FORGOTEN. HE WILL BE LONG REMEMBERED. I WOULD LIKE TO SUGGEST A STATUE DEDICATED TO HIM TO BE ERECTED IN SOME NICE PLACE NEAR WHERE HE WORKED. WE MISS HIM DEARLY. HE WAS VERY KIND TO US. AND HE ALWAYS ENCOURAGED ME WHEN EVER I RAN FOR ELECTIVE OFFICE EVEN THOUGH HE DID NOT ALWAYS ENDORSE ME. WHEN HE DID IN 2004 HE WORDS WILL LIVE FOREVER IN MY AND MY FAMILYS HEART. I SOME WAYS HE REMINDED US OF THE GREAT LOMBARDI. I ASKED COACH LOMBARDY ONE TIME TO DEFINE FOOTBALL IN ONE WORD. HIS ANSWER TO ME WAS "FAITH." SUCH CAN BE SAID IN ONE WORD TO DEFINE DAVE WILLMOTT. I AM DONE. JOHN W. BUGLER BUGLER.ORG
Feb 6, 2010 6:14 pm

Guest (CBL) from Coram says::
I just found out that Dave Willmott passed away last summer. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family, friends and co-workers. His grandchildren wrote the best posts I have ever read! Their grandpa was a terrific reporter! I loved Suffolk Life and now that it's gone, well, we've all seen what Newsday has done to us recently. We have the Long Island Press and our local newspapers who all do fantastic jobs reporting the news. I can only hope and pray that someone out there will step up to the plate and try to fill Dave's shoes and resurrect his and our beloved Suffolk Life. Personally, I think alot of people, who are sick and tired of Newsday, will be more than happy to subscribe to a real newspaper. Dave and his staff got out the word and saved us from Shoreham and Jamesport. I will miss Dave Willmott and Suffolk Life alot and Why Not? G-d Bless. Rest in peace my friend.
Dec 21, 2009 1:51 pm

Guest (Mike Caslale) from Brooklyn, NY says::
I worked as a cub reporter for David in my early 20's and to this day I consider David a true hero of his community. He fought for what he believed in, no matter what the cost to himself. It was his efforts and sacrifice which exposed the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant as the safety hazard it was, and kept it out of my family's back yard. Every Christmas David brought the entire community together to run a Mystery Santa program - where we collected gifts for the down-and-out families of our area. David was a great guy. I'm lucky to have known him.
Dec 11, 2009 1:15 pm

Guest (madison willmott) from east quogue says::
my grandpa david jeroune willmott was always there for me.he always said this to me always remeber the good times and never the bad so why not !i am disaponnite and very sad but he lived the greasest life a man could live. it was so hard to say goodbye but the hardest to let go . i never wanted to but ihad to the minute i found out i was crying ! i love you grandpa1 why not!<3
Nov 29, 2009 2:55 pm

Guest (Mike Keegan) from Shirley says::
Miss the Suffolk Life Great news paper good man at the helm a servant of all Shirley and Suffolk County. doubt if there will be another
Nov 17, 2009 10:43 pm

Guest (Robert Heiney) from Bayport, NY says::
I am so sad to hear that Dave Wilmott passed away. He was a great mentor to me and was responsible for setting me on a path of success in my early 20's. He has helped countless people become 'great' and he will be sorely missed by all.
Oct 30, 2009 8:02 pm

Guest (Ryan Willmott) from East Quogue says::
I always loved my granfather and for people to sa such great things about him it make me proud to be his grandson. He always gave me great it advice and when i get older i want to be a wirter just like him. and why not?
Oct 28, 2009 9:06 pm

Guest (journo) from melville says::
Dave, great guy, Suffolk Life, good paper, Andrea Aurichio,what a suprise to see this by- line, always the best newswriter around- made you feel Dave and his Suffolk Life and times.Great job. Not suprised about that.
Aug 22, 2009 1:26 pm

Guest (Lawyer) from Riverhead says::
Ditto the comments from the Riverhead lawyer- Andrea helped galvinize the movement by calling attention to the battle being waged "out east". She woke up the guys on West 43rd Street and the message went out loud and clear- Jamesport by the way- has no nuke- Kudos to her- and to Wilmott, and why the hell not.
Aug 22, 2009 12:25 pm

Guest (old rebel) from Jamesport says::
Yes indeed, those of us who fought to stop the nuke in Jamesport will never forget the girl from the big city paper who showed up in blue jeans, quietly took notes and articulated complex issues in minutes as the rest of us weekly press struggled for months to understand what she grasped instantly. It was something else.
Aug 17, 2009 7:31 pm

Guest (DMH) from SB/Quogue says::
Great article Andrea! With the execption of his call for Peconic home rule and opposition to the nuke plant, I hardly ever agreed with Dave's conservative political point of view. However, he was indeed a classic newsman, now quickly becoming a lost breed. It is a shame that he did not outlive his newspaper. He will be missed. Again, kudos on the article!
Aug 15, 2009 11:49 am

Guest (Riverhead lawyer) from baiting hollow says::
Andrea Aurichio was The New York Times reporter that spread the word about the stop Jamesport movement back in the day. Small world and WHY NOT?
Aug 14, 2009 10:55 pm

Guest (Newspaper Ink) from Southampton says::
Those of us who learned the write a lead under Dave Willmott's tutelage will remember the noisy news room, the rush of reporters and the buzz of activity that marked each deadline day with a fondness that only we from the trenches can appreciate. He gave a good many of us our first shot at a byline. A pretty good legacy at that.
Aug 12, 2009 9:41 pm

 

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