On a sunny July afternoon in 2011, I had the privilege of going to the home of William G. Nunn Jr. and Frances Bell Nunn, to interview them for the Teenie Harris Archive’s oral histories. I had known them casually in my childhood, but as their front door opened two impressions hit me: 1) Here were some of Pittsburgh’s finest African American citizens, and (2) how much they seemed to still be in love. They greeted me, together, with big smiles and we shared a warm, informative afternoon full of both serious discussion and rich laughter.
William Goldwyn Nunn Jr. was born on Sept. 30, 1924, and lived an incredible life. At the time of our interview, he was still going strong, despite having “officially” retired over two decades prior. While analyzing college prospects for the Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 draft, he suffered a stroke, from which he would not recover. The Nunns had been married an impressive 63 years when “Bill” passed at age 89, on May 7, 2014.
William Jr. was born to Maybelle and William G. Nunn—the managing editor of the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper. Bill Jr. had become an outstanding basketball player at West Virginia State University, and in his senior year led the team to an undefeated record. He played with two of the first three Black players to play in the NBA. Upon graduation in 1948, the Harlem Globetrotters tried to recruit him, and he found himself facing the tough choice of what to do with his life. He ultimately chose to take a job with the sports staff of the Courier, (the largest Black newspaper in the country at the time). Later, he became the sports editor, replacing the legendary Wendell Smith, and eventually became the managing editor for the paper.
In the late 60s, Mr. Nunn was dissatisfied by the NFL not drafting more African American players. He got the ear of Art Rooney Sr., and was thus lured to the Steelers organization because he felt he could make a real difference for Black athletes. Not everyone appreciated the idea of hiring a newspaperman to scout college players, but Bill proved himself fully worthy to be the first African American appointed to a front office position. As the years of discovering overlooked players who (for the most part) attended historically Black colleges, (such as L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Joe Greene, Dwight White, Glen Edwards, Ernie Holmes, John Stallworth, and Donnie Shell), the Steelers continued to have winning seasons, and Bill’s participation was never questioned again. In fact, although he officially retired from the Steelers organization in 1987, he continued to be a part of the recruitment team for over 46 years, until his death.
Nunn never played nor coached football, but still he was nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007, and was a 2010 inaugural member of the Black College Hall of Fame. He also was the recipient of six Super Bowl rings, because of his distinction as being one of the longest tenured employees of the Steelers. His name also lies in the West Virginia State University Sports Hall of Fame.
Mr. Nunn is survived by his lovely wife, Frances (whom he’d known since childhood), his daughter Lynell Nunn (an attorney), his son Bill Nunn III (a film/television/theatre actor), three grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
I listened to our 2011 interview as I wrote this obituary. It made me wish I had spent even more time chatting with them about their accomplishments in helping other African Americans achieve new heights. Nunn also discussed working with Teenie Harris as both a colleague and his boss. He said Teenie, being older than Bill, taught him a lot about how to approach people favorably. However, when he became Teenie’s boss at the Courier, he asked Teenie to take more than “one shot,” just in case the first one didn’t turn out. Teenie refuted that would never happen, so that was a bit of a disagreement between them, and Teenie never missed the shot (to his knowledge, of course). The Nunns giggled almost like teenagers as they scanned the many photos Teenie had taken of them through the decades— including their wedding portraits. It was a real treat for me to share Teenie’s images of them, which they had never seen before, and to witness the joy it brought them. I’ll always remember fondly how they were linked with their arms around each other and waived to me as I drove away from their house. One of the last things Mr. Nunn said to me was that he “just wanted to make a difference in the lives of African Americans.” He did. They both did, and I left with a serene sense of pride and appreciation for the road they helped pave.