Boston's Jack Williams and "Wednesday's Child"
On a day in early October 1981, Jack Williams, a popular Boston news anchor, met a little boy named James at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline; neither of their lives would ever be the same.
Williams at that time was in his late thirties, tall and handsome with wavy blond hair worn fashionably long. He moved through life with the affable, confident ease of a man who expected success. A Phi Beta Kappa scholar, he had arrived in Boston in 1975 and had quickly risen to the top of one of the nation’s premier media markets. Earlier in 1981, WBZ-TV had teamed him with one of the first black news anchors in the country, a young woman named Liz Walker; for the next 18 years, they would prove to be the city’s most formidable on-air duo.
On this day, Jack Williams began a journey into a place he once could barely imagine, where children were unwanted, unloved, and often harmed. “I came from a very loving family,” Williams said recently. “I had two sisters old enough to be my mother. I was the first boy. I was adored. My feet never touched the ground until I was 16. I had no idea of child abuse. My idea of abuse was no dessert.”
He believed this: Every child deserves a chance to love and be loved, a chance to succeed. He wanted to use his prominence to make a difference in the community, and, as the father of six, he wanted to focus on children.
He knew there was a crisis in foster care: a long backlog of special-needs kids — kids who, because they were older or had siblings or perhaps because of physical, emotional, or mental difficulties, had long ago been bypassed by families looking to adopt. He went to the Massachusetts Department of Social Services and the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange with an idea. He said he would spotlight one special-needs child each week and air the segment on Wednesdays. He’d call it “Wednesday’s Child.” DSS was skeptical, concerned that the most vulnerable children might be used to increase ratings.
That was not his purpose, Williams told the agency. “I said, ‘I’ll do it on my own time. I’ll write it. I’ll edit it. I don’t want to choose the child. No child is ineligible. Zero. None.’ I had no clue. No clue to the depths of the problems,” he says now. “But once I get committed, I don’t quit easy.”
In the museum, he gave James a white fire hat, and as the boy explored, a cameraman followed. James had been shunted from foster home to foster home, and the television star talked to him about things he liked, and his hopes of finding a family. For the first time in his life, it is possible that James felt like the most important boy on earth.
Phone calls trickled into the adoption agency, and the next summer, James was placed with an adoptive family. Williams continued to meet more children, each week taping the visit and then airing it on a Wednesday. He introduced each segment by describing that week’s child, highlighting the positive, while not hiding what problems might lie ahead. “Within a year,” Williams says, “people started paying attention.”
There were successes, families sprouting from the most barren ground. There were also tragedies — children adopted, then returned as though they were cars that had malfunctioned. Some adoptive parents expected that love and kindness could fix all wounds, not realizing until too late how long that could take. “What is the alternative?” Williams asks. “What do you do with kids if they’ve been battered and bruised? We do our best to get them in loving families, and then we hope.”
On a spring day with lilacs bursting and the city bathed in green, “Wednesday’s Child” number 850, a young woman named Araina, comes to Boston. It is her day of hope. More than 525 children have found families since “Wednesday’s Child” began; maybe she will, too. She is just shy of 16, a high school freshman living in a residential home an hour south of the city with five other foster children. Two younger sisters found adoptive families long ago, and she hasn’t heard from them since. It’s as if they simply flew away and left her behind. She is shy, but when asked, she says she likes big dogs, soccer, pancakes, cereal, and the color red. She has a collection of decorative ornaments, but no place of her own to show them. She says she wants “a mother, a father, and younger kids and older siblings.”
Williams has interviewed children at police stations, malls, Boston Celtics practices, fire stations, playgrounds, ballparks, sledding hills, miniature golf courses, petting zoos, horse farms … wherever a child would feel relaxed and engaged. “Nobody has ever turned us down,” he says. For Araina, who wants one day to work in criminology and forensics, the meeting is supposed totake place at the State Police Crime Lab in Sudbury. But her case manager gets lost, and with time growing short before Williams has to return to the station, they make new plans. Araina will be filmed outside the CBS4 Boston (formerly WBZ) studio. The Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office agrees to bring a squad car and fingerprinting equipment for Araina to try.
Williams and the cameraman swing into action as soon as they arrive at the station. “We have a very cute kid,” Williams says to the camera. “I want to introduce you to the newest member of .” Araina smiles the shy smile of a blushing teenager.
“You interested in law enforcement?”
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