I started my career at The Messenger more than 24 years ago – technically, after Walt Stevens had retired in 1988 as editor and managing editor.
In reality, Walt didn’t retire until well into the 21st century, continuing to come into the office every day for years afterward. And I am eternally grateful.
Walt died Wednesday morning at the age of 96.
When I started at The Messenger on Jan. 9, 1989, I had been involved in the news business off and on for more than 20 years. I thought I knew something about journalism.
I learned quickly that I didn’t know enough. I started in the newsroom as a Lifestyle reporter. At that time, the job mostly involved rewriting press releases, writing feature stories and taking obituaries over the phone in the days before email, dutifully spelling back all the names to the funeral home directors while typing in information about the deceased.
Although Walt was the editor emeritus with an office separate from the newsroom, he didn’t hesitate to offer helpful feedback. One time, I had written what I thought was a pretty decent story about a young man who had become paralyzed; Walt disagreed.
He rightfully pointed out that I had done a poor job of providing enough background on exactly how the accident had occurred and under what circumstances. Even, he said, if we had run a story every day for the last week with that same information, I needed to remember that new people move into town every day, and every day visitors who are just passing through pick up the paper from vending machines. Those people deserve to know the whole story.
I can’t remember his talk verbatim. But I know that when you got scolded by Walt Stevens, you remembered the spirit of the lesson, if not the exact words.
To this day, I repeat some of the things I learned from Walt to the reporters who pass through The Messenger newsroom. Although many of them never met Walt, they are also learning from him.
Long before there was Google, there was Walt.
I can’t count the number of times I ran into his office to ask questions about people or places in the community. Walt either knew everybody and everything about Fort Dodge, or he knew who to call to get the answers.
I once brought in a hand towel I bought at an Ames antique store that had the words “Corn Belt Hotel” and “Fort Dodge” woven into it. I couldn’t find any mention of the Corn Belt anywhere. Until I asked Walt.
It turned out it was the hotel where he stayed when he was interviewing for The Messenger job in 1954.
A few years ago, before she retired as The Messenger’s Lifestyle editor, Sandy Mickelson and I were trying to figure out how and why newspaper stories of the past and many press releases today end with this traditional designation: – 30 -.
There are numerous legends about the origins of the 30, which apparently first showed up about the time of the Civil War. I learned about 30 when I was working my first job with the Albia Newspapers in the 1970s and every story ended that way.
But I know this. Walt Stevens was the consummate newspaperman, he touched a lot of lives, and he will be missed.
– 30 –