Nearly 50 years ago, I had just turned 19 when I sat down for my first job interview.
It was hard to “read” the man sitting behind the cluttered desk. He had a tinge of red in his complexion, his expression was every bit the look of the businessman he was and, when he smiled, it was for purpose.
“Do you smoke?” the older man asked. “Are you a drinker?”
Evidently, Walter B. Stevens, editor of the Fort Dodge Messenger, got the answers he wanted. He offered me a job as a sportswriter.
Walt Stevens won virtually every newspaper honor and award available during a career that went beyond the 34 years he served as managing editor in Fort Dodge before he “retired.” Certainly, he was one of the most respected newspapermen Iowa has ever known. Even after he retired, he remained as “editor emeritus.”
He was 96 when he died last week.
Folks who read his obituary will know that he was a World War II veteran, and a native of Nebraska. His newspaper career began in 1935 and he worked at newspapers in Nebraska, Missouri and Minnesota before he settled in at the Messenger for the rest of his career.
It would be more accurate to say that Stevens settled in at the Fort Dodge Messenger for the rest of his life, rather than to limit that time span to a career.
Although he “retired” as editor in 1988, Stevens never really left the Messenger. Even after his official retirement, he had an office in the Messenger building and was often there writing one of two columns he penned until about eight years ago. He stopped writing his column in 2005 after he and his wife, Ruth, had moved into an apartment at Friendship Haven.
He’d been writing for Fort Dodge readers for half a century.
During that time, he wrote more than 1,000 columns about people and events in the city.
He and his oldest son, Paul (who headed the Associated Press Kansas City office for years before he also retired) wrote a book on the history of the Fort Dodge Messenger when the paper turned 150 years old.
While it was Stevens who hired me for the $70-per-week job in late 1963, it was the paper’s Sports Editor Bob Brown who had given me the chance to be interviewed.
I’d responded to an advertisement for a Sports Writer at the Messenger and my letter was answered with a request to “go to a football game Friday, write a story and send it to me.”
The story was written in long hand, but Brown had still arranged for the job interview.
Even though my “typing” created documents at the inaccurate, tediously slow speed of 20 words a minute, and I had no newspaper experience and very little writing experience, I landed my first newspaper job.
Stevens ended the interview with a simple question: “Can you start Monday?”
And so it was on Monday, Nov. 4, 1963 I went to work as a sports writer in Fort Dodge. I’ll never forget my first pay check. I carried it to a bank next door, only to discover all the tellers sobbing. It was there I learned on Friday, Nov. 22,1963, that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
Even though I left the Messenger in 1965 for the U.S. Army, I stopped by several times through the years to say “hi” to Stevens. He always remembered me.
Walt Stevens gave me the opportunity to learn. After 50 years I’m still learning.
Not only did he give me my first job, he touched thousands of lives during a distinguished career. His death has left a void in Fort Dodge and in the newspaper community as a whole.
Perhaps Stevens’ longtime friend, former Fort Dodge Mayor and District Court judge Albert Habhab summed it up best: “The citizens of Fort Dodge and, I dare say, the state of Iowa, have lost one of the worthiest citizens in the death of Walt Stevens. His journalistic style was his trademark. As editor of The Messenger he always sought the truth and in his professional writing he reported the news at it was and not as others, having self interest, would have him do.”