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Your son a slacker? He begs to differ

-Submitted photo
Paul and Walt Stevens outside The Messenger building.

EDITOR’S NOTE: 10 years have passed since the originator of this Messenger Spotlight column, Editor Walter B. Stevens, passed away. His Spotlight legacy has been continued by his son, who salutes the legacy of his dad.)

When I told my Dad that I was taking a buyout from The Associated Press at the age of 62, he paused and said, “You’re a slacker.”

It mattered not that I had logged 36 years with the news agency. I should have known. This was a guy who worked at The Messenger into his 80s and wrote more than 1,000 Spotlight columns that no doubt impacted many who are reading this column. Heck, he was just getting into fourth gear at age 62 – my age when I retired in 2009.

If I were to get a phone call today from Walter B. Stevens, editor of The Heavenly Messenger since leaving our world 10 years ago, I would tell him, “Dad, I’m not really slacking off. Really!”

I’ve been publishing a daily newsletter for some 1,800 AP retirees and news industry friends for the past 10 years. I started it not long after you died in your room at Friendship Haven at the age of 96, just after your best buddy and fellow World War II veteran Al Habhab had visited you, and two years after Mom (Ruth Stevens) passed away.

And eight years ago, I was invited by Larry Bushman, your friend and former Messenger publisher (yep, The Messenger here on Earth), to resurrect the Spotlight column you wrote for 27 years. I know, I know, you wrote your Spotlight on a weekly basis and penned more than 1,000 columns. Mine appears monthly – and to date, I’ve done almost 100. Did I hear you whisper “slacker”???

And Dad, I’m also getting my exercise by playing tennis several times a week, continuing with a sport that you played Saturday mornings at the Dodger Courts and wowed your opponents with your wicked slice serve. All three of your kids took up the sport – Jan (retired second-grade teacher of 45 years in Cherokee and a longtime girls high school tennis coach) and Dave (retired senior associate dean at the University of North Carolina business school) and me.

You know, tennis, the sport that helped get you your first newspaper job in Hartington, Nebraska, when you hit around with the editor of the Cedar County News in the middle of the Great Depression. I never did ask you if you let him win in order to get a reporter’s job. Dad, you still there?

Me, you’ll recall that I got into the newspaper business at the ripe old age of 10, delivering the afternoon Messenger door to door on my bike and on foot. (And perhaps unbeknownst to you and Mom, spending my earnings Saturday mornings at the Hobby Shop, at the top of Central Avenue.) I passed on Route 46 to brother Dave and then at age 15 started working in the sports department for Bob Brown, coming in to the second-floor newsroom at 713 Central Ave. on Friday nights to take football and basketball scores from the Messengerland area and write brief stories – on a typewriter! – for Saturday’s edition. Dave did the same thing – as did many other graduates of the Bob Brown School of Sports Writing, including Julie Moser Thorson, CEO of your home for your last 10 years of life, Friendship Haven.

Oh yeah, I worked three summers as the replacement for vacationing news staff. So did Jan, a proofreader one summer. From that era of the ’60s, two survive today: Fred Larson, staff photographer who’s one of the most popular people at Friendship Haven (and subject of a past Spotlight), and Marty McCarty, a reporter and editor then, from Emmetsburg, who’s a friend here in Kansas City and coaches aspiring book authors.

My first Messenger byline was at age 16 – and I still get the same high 60 years later when I see my byline in print (and online). Slacker? Really?

Newspapering coursed through my veins, thanks to you, Dad, and I worked for the Tri-Crown at St. Edmond High School (with the O’Leary twins Bill and Jim, Bill Hood, Maureen Micus, Michaeleen Deaner, Larry Underburg) and the Panther Prowl at Fort Dodge Community College (with editors and twins Sally and Sheri Jackowell). It was at community college where I had the good fortune to meet a nursing student named Linda Saul. Our first date was Homecoming 1965 and she was elected homecoming queen. I wish you and Mom had been around this past June 15 when we celebrated the 55th anniversary of our wedding at Corpus Christi Church (where you were a member and usher for 60 years).

Those news genes I inherited from you continued strong when I left Fort Dodge for the University of Iowa, where my schedule adviser, Professor John Bremner, told me he knew and respected longtime Messenger City Editor Karl Haugen. I wrote sports stories on the Hawkeyes (including Ed Podolak in football, Fort Dodge’s own Tom Chapman in basketball) for Bob Brown, the Daily Iowan and the AP, and covered Regina High School for the Press-Citizen. When I joined the Air Force after graduation. I was editor of newspapers at bases in Little Rock, Arkansas., and Langley, Virginia,, during four years of service. You have me there, Dad, with your 33 months of combat in World War II.

Post-USAF, you’ll recall my Fort Dodge ties continued at the University of Kansas, where my master’s thesis was a history of The Messenger. I did much of my research at the old Public Library on First Avenue North. Years later, in 2006, when the newspaper celebrated its 150th anniversary, you and I collaborated to publish a book on its history that included some of that research. And Bob Brown wrote a chapter on sports – including what he called his favorite luncheon-speech story, on how I pitched for the FDCC baseball team and also covered its games for The Messenger and in one road game threw a no-hitter. He recalled that I called him to ask how I should handle it and he told me, “Write it like you’d write about me throwing a no-hitter.” And he added, “I have often considered Bob Feller or Sandy Koufax were never afforded that honor of throwing a no-hitter and savored having their byline over the story the next morning.”

I still remember when I was first named an Associated Press chief of bureau, in Albuquerque, Dad, and how you wrote me a letter with thoughts from an editor’s perspective on how a bureau chief should conduct himself. It was more a lesson of life. Your Number One Rule: be a good listener. It has served me well in writing my own Spotlights. And I still have that letter.

You recall the story behind why I began calling you a Grumpy Old Editor? Let me refresh you. I was AP’s Kansas City bureau chief when I interviewed for a reporter’s opening someone who had worked for AP’s competition, UPI, when it served The Messenger. To break the ice, I asked him about his job in Iowa and whether he knew anyone at The Messenger. “Oh yes,” he replied, “they had a grumpy old editor there who never liked anything we did.” Call me too nice, but I never told the applicant he’d just insulted my father. He didn’t get the job.

You know how I enjoyed my Associated Press journey that took Linda and me – and our children Jenny, Molly and Jon – to assignments and new adventures in Albany, St. Louis, Wichita, Albuquerque, Indianapolis and, in 1984, Kansas City. Maybe that’s why I’m still doing a newsletter that reaches those AP friends all over the globe.

And I am proud to say I came from Fort Dodge, the city where I grew up, got my start in journalism and met the woman who’s my life partner. My hope is to continue to tell the story of the people and places of Fort Dodge and Webster County, past and present, through the Spotlight column for years to come. As I learned from you, everyone has a story.

I’ve felt privileged to look into the lives of my Spotlight subjects and tell their stories. Lots of unforgettable people in those interviews. Jane Burleson, the first Black to serve on the Fort Dodge City Council. Tom Goodman, a friend growing up, so bravely telling about the life of his son Tommy John weeks after his sudden death. Judge Al Habhab, Mr. Fort Dodge. Doug Slotten, a blind amputee injured in the Vietnam War who became a successful attorney. Members of the Maggio family telling about their remarkable late sister Rosalie. And even some subjects that couldn’t talk – Dodger Stadium and its storied history (my favorite lead, if these bricks could talk). The Blanden Memorial Art Museum. The High Bridge. Tom Thumb Drive-In.

One other Spotlight I did besides this one that was very personal: This past fall was the 24th anniversary of my annual pilgrimage to Iowa City to watch the Hawkeyes – one started with Iowa roommates Greg Sells and Paul Wright but which has grown to encompass others from St. Edmond – John Anderson, Steve Dapper, Mick Flaherty, Doug Goodrich, Jim Konvalinka, Frank Kopish, Denny Lawler, Mark McCarville, Pat O’Brien and Mike Tracy. Yes, I did a Spotlight on that tradition, too.

When I finish each Spotlight and hit the Send computer key to dispatch it to Messenger Editor Bill Shea, I raise a hand of thanks to the heavens with hope I told the story fairly and accurately and that it would have passed your muster.

Will I write this Spotlight column as long as you, Dad? I’ve got a lot of years to go. Slacking off, though? I think not. Hope you agree.

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