By Carol Wallace/Managing Editor
Updated November 23, 1998 12:00 PM

Week after week during the past 16 years, Nancy Pierce Williamson has pursued a herculean task: making sure every fact in PEOPLE was checked. And double-checked. And, often, triple-checked. As chief of reporters, she trained and managed 30 devoted staffers who verified every bit of information in the magazine, from the straightforward (a story subject’s age) to the surreal (for the record, Mickey Mouse does not have knees).

But, despite ample warning, one fact has left us all unprepared. On Nov. 13, Williamson, 60, retired after 39 years at Time Inc. This is akin to New York City losing the Empire State Building. “I don’t remember a world without Nancy in it,” says executive editor Cutler Durkee. “She was a ferocious defender of the facts. I went home and slept like a baby hundreds of nights, secure in the knowledge that Nancy was battening down the hatches, and all would be right with the magazine.”

Elvis may have left the building, but it seemed that Nancy, on closing nights, almost never did. “In my early days at PEOPLE,” she says, “I would work from 10 a.m. to 3 or 4 in the morning. It took strength and stamina, and I got used to the pressure.” She had already had plenty of practice. After graduating from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Williamson began doing research at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in 1959, eventually becoming a writer-reporter for special projects. During her tenure, she cowrote an award-winning cover story on women in sports and covered winter Olympics in Austria, France and Japan. In 1980 she took a job as a reporter-researcher for TIME, becoming a PEOPLE person two years later. “I really have cared tremendously for this magazine,” she says. “I have put my time in, and it’s been a good roll.”

She will be deeply missed—and not just for her workplace skills. “You can depend on Nancy to improve the quality of any party,” says Durkee. Future parties will be more mellow affairs: Williamson intends to settle into her secluded weekend home in Southampton, N.Y., where she plans to study art, write a children’s book and do volunteer work in the community. “I’ll miss the people that I’ve met,” she says. “Many of them have become best friends. But it’s just going to be a whole new life.”

We wish her the best of luck, and know that PEOPLE will never be the same. Sadly, that’s a fact.