She was Willesee senior’s 13th grandchild, a brood which brought him much joy in his final years as his six children from three different mothers surrounded their beloved father during his gruelling cancel battle.
Willesee, who delivered a moving eulogy during yesterday morning’s mass and the final farewell to his father, and Langdon were among the packed congregation which gathered at St Mary’s Cathedral for the funeral of one of Australia’s great newsmen.
“There has not been anyone like him since, a sharp intellect and a great instinct for a story,” said former Nine and Seven boss David Leckie outside the cathedral.
“He was also a bloody funny bugger and a good mate, I’m going to miss him.”
Willesee’s extended family also gathered, including his sister Colleen and brothers Don and Terry, who said he had “always aspired to be as good a reporter as Mike”. “I didn’t quite get there,” he said, “but he was my brother, a much-loved man in our family and we are going to miss him.”
It was a roll call of some of Australia’s most familiar faces from the medium Willesee had dominated for half a century.
A Current Affair host Tracy Grimshaw, veteran showbiz reporter Richard Wilkins, who attributed Willesee with giving him a big break after hiring him on 2DayFM, Seven’s Sunday Night host Melissa Doyle and reporter Steve Pennells, former 60 Minutes reporter George Negus, Nine head of television Michael Healy and Network 10 news consultant and industry stalwart Peter Meakin were among those who attended the funeral.
Meakin recounted many stories from the 40-plus years he worked, and was friends with Willesee, but his favourite was the time he landed in strife with his boss at Channel Nine, Kerry Packer, who was fuming that Willesee had dared to run a story about his battles with the Australian Tax Office.
“When management told him Kerry would be after him, Mike couldn’t care less. He told the bosses ‘tell Kerry he can go ahead and sue himself’. That was the sort of bloke he was, he was never into the left or the right, or who was most powerful, he treated everyone the same way,” Meakin said.
Willesee’s coffin was carried into St Mary’s covered in hundreds of yellow roses, and positioned next to a photo portrait of the man who had been known to millions of Australians for generations.
Indeed, it was a funeral fitting for a devoutly Catholic man who returned to the church after a plane crash in Nairobi, Kenya, while he was “chasing a story”. Willesee prayed to God to spare the lives of his colleagues in return for his unerring devotion.
All survived and Willesee embarked on one of his most famous stories, a documentary called Signs of Christ which investigated the miracle of stigmata which Willesee was unable to disprove. It was seen by millions around the world.
Willesee himself acknowledged he was an imperfect Christian, but he dedicated a large part of his life, both publicly and privately, seeking to validate his faith. Under the stained glass windows and imposing sandstone columns of St Mary’s, as the boys choir filled the cavernous space and the scent of frankincense and myrrh wafted, it appeared Willesee may have finally achieved his mission.
Andrew Hornery is a senior journalist and Private Sydney columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.