Obituary : John Walter
John Walter, a well-known editor and journalist both on and off Martha's Vineyard, died Thursday, Sept. 11, at Mercy Hospital in Springfield from complications of surgery. He was 61.
Mr. Walter had lived on the Vineyard for six years and was the owner, with his wife, Jan Pogue, of the custom book publishing company, Vineyard Stories. Together they have produced nearly a dozen books and assisted in the production of several more, on subjects ranging from art to history, from ornithology to cooking. Prior to starting that venture in 2005, he had been editor and publisher of the Vineyard Gazette, managing editor and executive editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and one of the founding editors of the first national newspaper, USA Today.
For Mr. Walter, words were a tangible commodity. He published his first newspaper for his family at age six. He attended the Medill Journalism School at Northwestern University, where he became the editor of The Daily Northwestern, widely considered one of the best college newspapers in the country. After college, he began a long career of outstanding journalism at newspapers around the country. His career path took him from newspapers as disparate as the Pacific Daily News in Guam - where he learned to love pie served up by two local ladies of the night who refused to sell whole pies because their regular customers might then have to go without a slice - to the now defunct Baltimore News-American, where he fell in love with his wife when they climbed over a construction fence to spy on the then new, now famous, Harborplace shopping and eating waterfront mall.
His career was filled with challenges, serious issues, and lots of humor. One of the many tests of his journalistic skills in Atlanta was gearing up the Journal Constitution's staff for sports coverage as the city hosted the 1996 Olympics. "We're going to be the hometown newspaper for the Games," he told The New York Times in 1992, as those preparations began, adding: "We're going to have to widen the beats. We'll have to develop expertise in water polo, for example."
Under his leadership the Journal Constitution won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1993 for a series of stories about organisms and their resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. The newspaper also undertook ground-breaking investigations into the dynamics of poverty in Georgia, at one point going to court to force the state division of child services to open its records. The newspaper's final report featured a compelling graphic: a pile of 844 children's shoes, one for each of the neglected and abused children who had died after coming to the state's attention between 1993 and 1998.
The project grew to become a six-month series of 19 stories which, in the words of the Columbia Journalism Review, "revealed a horrifying tableau of the children's battered lives and exposed the state's indifference to its mandate to protect them." Mr. Walter told CJR that the challenge in this series was not just in the reporting, but also in the presentation: "We wanted tears in readers' eyes," he said, "but we didn't want them to stop short and say `that is not for me,' and turn the page."
Through the years he had worked with an amazing array of innovative editors and journalists and helped launch the careers of hundreds more. Young journalists whom he mentored now teach the craft as college professors and lead or work on newspapers from coast to coast. His abiding belief in serious journalism as a public duty, and the sanctity of that work, led him to eschew voting in national and local elections while he was active as a newspaper editor because he wanted to be completely non-partisan in his editorial judgments.
He served as a Pulitzer Prize juror in 1999-2000 and spoke around the world on where he hoped modern journalism would move.
Said Mary Anne Dolan, former editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, "I feel I have lost one of the very, very few who truly understand the era of journalism and how hard some of us fought to prevent its end." Richard Curtis, managing editor of design at USA Today and another founding editor of the paper, said, "He was one of the most dynamic editors. He was infused with energy. He was dedicated to the paper, and his family as well."
Family and Community
Mr. Walter had an enduring fascination not only with newspapers and their history, but with American history and culture generally - which he eagerly shared with his children. His youngest son, Christian, then six, and he listened each morning on the way to school to a tape of Stephen Ambrose's book "Undaunted Courage," the saga of the explorers Lewis and Clark.
A summer later, in response to what had grown to be an obsession with that story by his son, Mr. Walter organized a family odyssey, following the route of the explorers into the American West. He packed the car with his wife, three children and young niece, Nancy - who announced she just hated anything to do with history - and filled them each day with the words of the adventure as recorded in Lewis' diary. (He read these diaries while his wife did the driving; anyone who rode with Mr. Walter knew his attention was more focused on the conversation than the road, leading to terrifying trips.) More recently, he undertook an extended summer road trip with Christian, taking in baseball games at major league ballparks across the country.
Back home on Martha's Vineyard, he took on the challenge of following in the footsteps of Arthur Railton as editor of The Dukes County Intelligencer, the quarterly journal of the Martha's Vineyard Museum. In the winter of 2006-7, he assisted with production of a special edition, The Arthur Railton Reader, which presented a broad sample of work by the retiring editor. In the subsequent seven editions he presented stories on a vast array of subjects, from the Civil Rights activism of Vineyard women to the history of the Rice Playhouse to the culture of Island lobster fishing.
On the day before his death he submitted a detailed story budget and rough texts for Volume 50, No. 2, the November edition of the Intelligencer. In a note accompanying that material, he described it as "a tentative version of the issue, just in case I don't feel like working at all when I get back."
Mr. Walter was active in the Island community, as a parishioner and member of committees at the Federated Church in Edgartown, and as an Edgartown representative to the Martha's Vineyard Cultural Council.
He had met his wife, also a journalist, pretty much in the middle of his life, and thought about courting her for seven years before he got around to asking for a date. Their marriage of more than two decades produced their three children - Alexander Pogue, who lives in Boston; Lily Walter, who lives in northern California; and Christian Pogue Walter, a senior at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School.
For all of his many avid interests, Mr. Walter's wife and children were the constant center of his busy and happy life. Upon his death, one of his sons summed up his father's impact on the world by saying, "Daddy was the kindest man I've ever known. I sure was lucky." As he was being wheeled into surgery last week, Mr. Walter told his wife, "I love you, and I love our family." They were the last words his wife heard from him, but a sentiment that he expressed constantly and one that is seared into his family's hearts.
His death followed surgery for a rare disorder of facial nerves called trigeminal neuralgia that had caused him episodes of severe pain. He told few people about the extent of that pain, choosing instead to greet each day with the words, "Today is going to be a good day."
He leaves his immediate family, his sister, Rosemary Giesser and her two children, Nancy and Rosemary Giesser, all of N. Olmstead, Ohio; his step-mother, Betty Walter, of Broadview Heights, Ohio; his brother-in-law and sister- in-law, Michael and Vicky Pogue of Lynchburg, Va., and their children, Amanda Strine, and her husband, Casey, of Oxford, England; and Mitchell Pogue and his wife, Melissa, also of Lynchburg. Mr. Walter was lucky enough to have provided a home for Amanda and Mitchell during short periods of his life. He also leaves hundreds of dear friends, including two Vineyard buddies, Nis Kildegaard and Joe Pitt. Joe was with him at his death, and Nis was in his heart, always.
Gifts in John Walter's memory may be made to John W. Walter Memorial Fund at the Martha's Vineyard Savings Bank, Box 1069, Edgartown, MA 02539; the gifts will be used to support enrichment opportunities for creative arts students (including the journalism department) at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School.
A joyful memorial service, followed by lunch, will be held for him at 1 pm on Oct. 4 under a tent at the Wasque Swimming Beach on Chappy. The public is welcome; transportation will be provided from the On Time dock to Wasque.
It will be a good day.