Longtime editor Stevens dies

Walt Stevens, the veteran journalist who chronicled the events and people of the Fort Dodge area for more than 50 years as the editor and, later, editor emeritus of The Messenger, died Wednesday morning at Friendship Haven.

He was 96.

Stevens, whose journalism career began in 1935 in Nebraska and continued after his Army service in World War II, was known to generations of readers as the author of the weekly Spotlight column which profiled local people and their accomplishments.

Larry D. Bushman, the publisher of The Messenger, called Stevens ”an icon at The Messenger.”

”He was a fine man who had a tremendous sense of fairness and honor,” Bushman said. ”Walt loved the newspaper business, The Messenger and Fort Dodge. It was his life.”

Albert Habhab, a former Fort Dodge mayor who became chief judge of the Iowa Court of Appeals, described Stevens as ”probably one of the finest men I’ve ever known.”

Stevens’ son, Paul Stevens, of Lenexa, Kan., said that during the last months and days of his life, his father taught everyone around him ”how to leave this Earth with dignity and grace.”

”Dad loved Fort Dodge and he loved being editor of The Messenger,” Paul Stevens said. ”He touched so many lives with his work and especially with his Spotlights that told the stories of people from Fort Dodge and the Messengerland area who make a difference.”

State Sen. Daryl Beall, D-Fort Dodge, recalled that Stevens hired him for his first newspaper writing job in the early 1980s. In 1999, when Beall returned to The Messenger as marketing director, he rejoined Stevens, who was then the editor emeritus.

”I love Walt Stevens,” Beall wrote in an email from Norway, where he is vacationing. ”He was like a second dad to me and I’ve always been grateful to the Stevens’ kids for sharing their father with me.

”I had the utmost respect for Walt as an editor and journalist, and as a man,” he wrote. ”Walt served his country during World War II and returned home to serve his community, church and family. Walt was a devout man of faith and remarkable human being. He touched countless lives in a positive and pervasive manner.”

A visitation will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Celebration Center at Friendship Haven, 420 Kenyon Road. A funeral service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Corpus Christi Church, 416 N. Eighth St.

Stevens arrived at The Messenger in 1954 and retired, in theory, in 1988. However, his idea of retirement consisted of taking a few days off so that a new office could be set up for him in the newspaper’s building. Then he returned to the office daily to churn out editorials plus the Spotlight and Accent on the News columns.

Stevens interviewed presidents and governors, but in a 2007 interview, he said some of the most impressive people he met didn’t have household names like Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. His list of such local people included the Rev. E.L. McEvoy, a popular priest whom Stevens said ”just exuded calm and charm,” and Minnie Becker, who led Becker Florists during World War II and a series of devastating floods.

He once said that the merger of two hospitals in Fort Dodge to form today’s Trinity Regional Medical Center was the biggest local story he covered. As editor of The Messenger, he helped to push for the merger of the former St. Joseph Mercy and Lutheran hospitals. Under his leadership, the paper ran a front page editorial calling for the two institutions to become one.

”It just seemed logical that we should have just one hospital in this city,” he said during a Nov. 29, 2007, program at Friendship Haven entitled ”Looking Back with Walt and Daryl.” Beall interviewed Stevens during that event.

The hospitals merged in 1973.

His Spotlight column debuted in 1978. He once said that he had written ”well over 1,000 of the Spotlights.” His final Spotlight column appeared in 2005.

Stevens believed that editors should be involved in their communities. He put that belief into action by serving on the city’s Recreation Commisson (the forerunner of today’s Parks, Recreation and Forestry Commission) from about 1954 to 1973. During his tenure on the commission, the Harlan and Hazel Rogers Sports Complex opened and the Butler tennis courts were built.

He joined the Lions Club in 1940 in Brainerd, Minn. In July 2010, he was honored for 70 years of membership in the club.

The Iowa Newspaper Association honored Stevens with its Master Editor-Publisher Award in 1982 and its Distinguished Service Award in 2003.

Stevens was born on Oct. 10, 1916, and grew up in Hartington, Neb. He graduated from Cedar Catholic High School there in 1933. He enlisted in the local unit of the Nebraska Army National Guard at age 17.

After studying for a year at a state teachers’ college in Wayne, Neb., he took a job as a reporter with the Cedar County News in Hartington in1935.

When the streetcar operators in Omaha, Neb., went on strike and violence was feared, Stevens’Army National Guard unit was activated. He spent about a week patrolling the streets of Omaha, which remained peaceful. While there, he sent the newspaper some reports on the work of the local soldiers. Those reports appeared under a byline that identified Stevens as the ”Omaha war correspondent.” That was the only time in his nearly 70 years in journalism that Stevens was referred to as a war correspondent.

At the paper, he met the love of his life, Ruth Petersen. She was a bookkeeper and society page editor at the paper. Stevens once said that many of their early dates involved delivering newspapers to small towns. They married on Feb. 14, 1946. She died on Aug. 27, 2011.

In 1938, he joined the staff of the The Daily Dispatch in Brainerd, Minn. About a year later, he was promoted to editor.

On Feb. 7, 1942, he was drafted into the Army for World War II service that took him to North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany. By the end of the war, Stevens was promoted to captain and placed in charge of his unit’s vehicles.

He returned to the United States in November 1945 and was discharged at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Upon returning to civilian life in 1946, he got married and became the editor of The Standard in Excelsior Springs. Mo.

In 1948, he became the managing editor of The Democrat in Fort Madison. He worked there until coming to Fort Dodge, where he became the managing editor of The Messenger in February 1954.

Sandy Mickelson, a former lifestyle editor of The Messenger, worked with Stevens during two stints with the newspaper. He hired her to be the farm and state editor in the late 1960s. When she returned to the paper to become lifestyle editor in 2000, he was the editor emeritus.

”I can’t say enough good things about him,” Mickelson said. ”Walt Stevens was easy to work for – hard when he had to be, but compassionate and caring. To me, he was, is and always will be the face of The Messenger.”

Alan Wooters, a former Webster County deputy auditor, said Stevens had great knowledge of elections and tax issues. He added that Stevens had an ”amazing ability to get to the heart of an issue.”

”When the phone rang and he said ‘This is Stevens at The Messenger’ you knew you had to have your facts, have them accurate and you better not dance around the maypole while answering his questions,” Wooters said. ”To say he struck fear in the hearts of government employees wouldn’t be an exaggeration.”

Wooters got to know Stevens away from work because the two frequently had lunch together at Zakeer’s restaurant when it was located at First Avenue South and Eighth Street. He recalled that Stevens loved to talk about history and the newspaper business.

Stevens, he added, was a devoted family man who ”absolutely smiled” every time he talked about his wife.

”The citizens of Fort Dodge and, I dare say, of the state of Iowa, have lost one of the worthiest citizens in the death of Walt Stevens,” Habhab said. ”His journalistic style was his trademark. As the editor of The Messenger he always sought the truth and in his professional writing he reported the news as it was and not as others, having self interest, would have him do.”