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November 9, 2010

Ny1 Anchor Cheryl Wills Brings History to Life Through Words, Songs and Pictures

Die Free: A Heroic Family History

When NY1 Anchor and Reporter Cheryl Wills stumbled upon the name Sandy Wills during a lazy Internet search, she discovered that her great-great-great-grandfather was a runaway slave who fought for the North in the Civil War and her reporter’s instincts immediately kicked in. Less than a year later, Wills has written and published Die Free: A Heroic Family History which she presented through words, music and pictures to a rapt audience on Tuesday, November 9 at St. Francis College. (Watch the event)

Wills came to St. Francis to be awarded with the 2010 Speak Truth To Power Award, presented by the Andrew W. Cooper Young Journalists In Training Program (YJIT). Wills said receiving the award was a great honor, because Andrew Cooper inspired her and, “as a result of his great work, I was able to enter the field of journalism.”

During the question and answer session with students, Wills pointed out she never would’ve found out about her rich family history if it wasn’t for a few twists of fate. “Slaves were treated as property… When they came into the world and when they left there was not a trace.” But when Sandy Wills registered for the army, the intake officer spelled his last name as Willis. Because of that mistake, his wife Emma had to file a series of depositions to gain access to his war pension. Those hundreds of pages of documents are at the heart of Die Free. “If they hadn’t done that they would have died anonymously just like everyone else.”

In addition to reading chapters from her book, Wills presented the Ensemble of Praize, a gospel choir which performed a collection of spirituals. She also ceded the stage to her younger brother, Clarence “Big Boy” Wills, who was diagnosed with autism at two years old and forty years later has succeeded in earning a high school diploma. Clarence is an amateur cartoonist who has created countless characters and won several awards for his work.

Die Free is not just about Sandy Wills, but traces four generations of the Wills family. Special editions of the book were sold at the event with proceeds donated to YJIT. A new edition of the book will be published in January.

“I wrote this not for myself, but for all Americans. I don’t care if you’re Italian, Jewish, Polish; all races made tremendous sacrifices to get here,” added Wills. “If your family came here, I don’t care what year it was, someone went through hell for you to sit in comfort in a college setting like you are right now. And when you realize the struggle, you’ve got to be grateful.

Cheryl Wills is an award winning television journalist who has covered everything from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to moderating televised discussions about the presidency of Barack Obama. She has scored interviews with a wide range of politicians and celebrities including exclusive one-on-ones with former Mayor Rudy Giuliani discussing his battle with prostate cancer, Bill Cosby and Dr. Maya Angelou. Cheryl has also appeared as herself in a number of major motion pictures like: “Freedomland” with Samuel Jackson and “The Brave One” with Jodie Foster and Terence Howard.

The Young Journalists In Training Program, which is dedicated to Andrew W. Cooper, the Founder and Publisher of “The City Sun” Newspaper, provides St. Francis students with an opportunity to explore the world of journalism and consider it as a career. The program offers firsthand exposure to the craft through lectures presented by experts in media as well as internships in New York City. In the past, St. Francis College students have interned at places like WABC-TV, WCBS-TV, CBS Radio and The Daily News.

St. Francis College, founded in 1859 by the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn, is located in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. Since its founding, the College has pursued its Franciscan mission to provide an affordable, high-quality education to students from New York City’s five boroughs and beyond.
St. Francis College, 180 Remsen Street, Brooklyn Heights, NY 11201

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