Thank you, Walt

I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of Walt Stevens, editor emeritus of The Messenger, and yet flooded with fond memories as well.

I was 16 when Walt hired me as a rookie reporter, working after school. I had been a part-time employee taking sports scores at night, pestering Walt for a chance to get my foot in the door of the newsroom.

That was over 30 years ago, but I still remember butterflies in my stomach the size of California condors as I approached the veteran editor, craggy and gruff and intimidating, a Mount Rushmore of local journalism, capable of withering a person with a single arch of a bushy eyebrow. Was he tough? He would have had Lou Grant on his knees whimpering in five minutes. His office smelled like the waiting room at the dentist.

In Walt’s world, only two things mattered to a newspaper. One was accuracy. And in case you forgot the first one, the second was also accuracy. Any story was fair game, but you had better be able to walk into the office and defend the validity of your information. The Messenger in those days was like Walt, a little gray at the temples, solid as marble, faithful as time. It would be there, on time, and it would be truth, because no one had the nerve to try to tell Walt an excuse for it being anything less.

It was an exciting time to experience journalism, in the era after Woodward and Bernstein and before the sensationalists and celebrity hounds. After Camelot and Vietnam, and before “media” became the art of twisting facts to suit corporate politics and glitter-covered bytes designed for a world that gets its knowledge from Google. We thought the press could change the world.

The Messenger newsroom was a fascinating, raucous place then.

The reporters were lean men with their sweat-stained oxford shirts rolled up at the sleeves, wide neckties loose and askew, chain smoking their way through decks of copy and loudly arguing with the city editor for a few extra inches of the newsprint hole that was their lifeblood. They spoke of exciting things and faraway places, drove recklessly, seeming to know everything about everything. The few women of the newsroom were glamorous, their silk blouses undone one button farther than anyone else at the time, stylish and talented and tough, stringing words together like pearls on a string, cussing like sailors when necessary. They all wanted to live up to Walt’s expectations. Some of them went on to big things, some, probably, to a stool at the corner bar.

The place was never quite anything approaching clean. There were stacks of paper everywhere, who knows what lost in its sheer, dogeared volume. You had to climb the tall, wide stairs of the stately old building to get there. It had the seen-better-days look of an old police precinct. It was hot, or cold, nothing in between. The ancient chairs with their torn seats squeaked pitifully. Battered chunks of old camera equipment came to rest in a cupboard after documenting who knows how many lives, accomplishments and tragedies. In short, it was beautiful.

Walt grandfathered over it all from the upper corner of the building, overlooking the main drag, twice as solid as the statue of Some Important Person that stood in the alley straight below him.

As imposing as Walt was, he also cared about his people. If you were troubled, hung over, struggling, you got called into the office to talk over some nuance of a story – it wasn’t until years later that I realized he never intended to kibitz over minutia of reporting … those sessions were to look into the person’s eyes, get them talking, and see if they were going to be OK.

I was there a mere blip in time, the most inconsequential and snot-nosed member of the staff. But 20 years later, if there was an illness in my family or some minor career achievement, I would get a call from Walt, never knowing how he had found out. I bet I wasn’t the only one. Still seeing if we were OK.

It was the last gasp of typewriters chattering out a heartbeat in a death-race with deadlines – by the time I left for college two years later, the Remingtons and the pots of glue used to paste stories together and the AP news ticker tape and the pneumatic tubes used to shoot finished stories from the newsroom to layout (and on one strange night that we never spoke about, to give the newsroom mouse a rocket ride of a lifetime) were all history. They were replaced by the sickly green glow and muffled chicka-chicka-chicka of computer keys that never has seemed as powerful or romantic. Walt hung on a little longer, lending his dignity and lofty standards into yet another new generation of writers.

The legacy: be fast, be steady, be honest, be fair, be right. I still think of him often, and try to apply the ideals we all learned from him.

It’s hard to imagine he has gone, even in his late 90s. It would be like waking up to find that a massive, immovable stone of granite had suddenly disappeared in the night.

But people like Walt are never really gone. In every investigation, in every story that changes something, comforts the afflicted or throws the rascals out, there is something of the giants of Iowa journalism who taught and demanded the very best of the Fourth Estate.

Walt Stevens did a lot for Fort Dodge, The Messenger, and the field of journalism, for which he should always be remembered and that I am sure better qualified people have already detailed. To me, he was the old pro who gave a kid a chance, when any other editor would have just laughed, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Walt has just met one more deadline, steadfast and on time. And this should end as any journalism vet would recognize, with the symbol that was so long used to mark a piece of good work – or good life – ably completed:

– 30 –

Dana Larsen is editor of the Pilot Tribune in Storm Lake and a former staff writer at The Messenger.