Paul Stevens remembers his dad
On the day before my dad’s funeral services, my brother Dave and I visited his old corner office on the second floor of The Messenger to say a final goodbye to the place where he held court as managing editor and editor of the newspaper for more than three decades.
It took me back to those days when dad worked behind his desk, a window to his left overlooking Central Avenue, as he edited stories, counseled reporters and pounded out stories, editorials and Spotlights – first on his trusty Smith Corona typewriter, later an IBM Selectric and finally, to his dismay, the new-fangled computer keyboard that he never really liked.
I recalled the array of hard-copy stories and grease-penned photos and whatever that were strewn on the desk, always where he could find them, mind you. I could smell the newsprint that permeated his office back then, from stacks of Iowa newspapers on a table across from his desk that he would page through for story and editorial ideas.
The corner area is no longer the editor’s lair and is now a conference room. Among his many kindnesses to dad over the years, which continued to his death, Publisher Larry Bushman named it the “Walter B. Stevens Conference Room” after dad retired.
On Saturday morning, dad passed by The Messenger and his office one last time as the procession carrying his body and casket diverted from Corpus Christi Church down Eighth Street and then on to Central Avenue. Below the window was a banner that Larry had made up in less than 24 hours, saying: “Thank you Walt. You will be missed.”
I was in the family car behind the Gunderson Funeral Home hearse but I jumped out as the hearse paused in front of the Messenger and joined Jesse Helling of The Messenger to take one last photo before we completed dad’s journey to the cemetery for military rites and his burial next to mom. As I snapped photos with my iPhone, a device you’d never see dad carrying, I envisioned the time when dad and City Editor Karl Haugen would be leaning out the north-facing windows as a summer parade went by, the Fort Dodge Lancers leading the way, as they gathered color for a story.
Dad would have scolded us all for going overboard in honoring his remarkable life. He would have lobbied hard with Larry and with Barbara Wallace Hughes, the managing editor, no doubt, to limit the Messenger’s coverage of his death to a brief story inside the paper and to a 200-word obituary.
However, as I said in my brief eulogy at the church, you can’t say The Fort Dodge Messenger without thinking Walt Stevens, and our family was very moved by the wonderful stories, photos and editorials that dad’s Messenger family wrote about him. We will be forever thankful.
Our memories of growing up in the family of Ye Olde Editor are many. And they are fond. The Messenger touched all members of our family, growing up.
My brother Dave and I made our first income as paperboys. I delivered to Route 64 and then Route 46, bringing collection money to circulation director Harold Ertl on Saturday mornings. I remember dad was involved once when a subscriber was belligerent to me for some reason on Thursday collection night. Dad came with me to his door, gave him that stern no-nonsense look of his, and he paid up.
I remember nights at the dinner table when dad would get a call from a subscriber who missed their newspaper. Dad would excuse himself, get in the family car and deliver our own paper in person. My sister Jan (Tracy) recalls long waits in the alley next to The Messenger for dad to leave work, sitting in our lone family car while he finished an editorial or story. On nights when dad had the car to himself, he would always call mom before leaving the office to see what he needed to pick up at Randall’s.
Dave and I both worked nights on the sports desk of The Messenger, taking scores and writing stories under sports editor Bob Brown, and occasionally getting out to cover a game. Jan worked a summer as a fill-in proofreader at The Messenger. Our mom was no shrinking violet and a former proofreader at the Cedar County News, where she and dad met, and she was always quick to point out any errors in each day’s Messenger and share them with her captive audience – dad. She was seldom wrong.
I followed dad into the journalism profession and he continued to be my True North in my 36-year career with The Associated Press. He was always there for advice, and when I got my first bureau chief job, dad wrote me a three-page letter with suggestions from the view of an editor who had worked with many AP chiefs. I referred to it often throughout my career. In later years, dad and I collaborated with Messenger employees to produce a 150th anniversary book on The Messenger’s history. Dad was a factor in a third of those years.
When they left their home on Eleventh Avenue North 10 years ago to live at Friendship Haven, mom and dad entered a world of wonderful, loving care in each stage of their final years. On Sunday afternoons, they continued their dinners with Al and Janet Habhab, their best friends, until the very final days. We thank the care givers at Friendship Haven and at Trinity Hospice for all they did for our parents over those years.
We thank Publisher Larry Bushman and the Messenger employees for all of their kindnesses to dad and our family, for making their Editor Emeritus continue to feel a close part of the Messenger long after he wrote his final Spotlight.
We were privileged to be their children and to grow up in a Fort Dodge that dad made a little better by his work at The Messenger. Dad was privileged to work for The Messenger and to serve the people of Fort Dodge.
Singer Dan Fogelberg wrote “The Leader of the Band” as a tribute to his father in 1981. And we found it fitting to sing it at the conclusion of dad’s services. The refrain goes:
The leader of the band is tired
And his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument
And his song is in my soul
My life has been a poor attempt
To imitate the man
I’m just a living legacy
To the leader of the band
Goodbye, dad. Thank you. On behalf of Jan, Dave and all our family,
Paul Stevens is the retired Associated Press bureau chief in Kansas City, Mo. He lives in Lenexa, Kan.