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

Originally Posted: August 12, 2009

Andrea Aurichio

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.

Updated: August 14, 2009, 12:39 pm
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