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Death of a Newsman

Phil Walters brought a storyteller's voice to whatever subject he took on.



By Grant Pick

A Channel Two videotape from the early 80s shows Polish immigrants arriving in Chicago, including, says reporter Phil Walters, "a locksmith from Warsaw, an electrician from Gniezno, a chauffeur from the Krakow area. In Polish they try to explain why they are here."

The camera focuses on one forlorn-looking man. "His name is Ted, and his wife and two children are still in Poland, so he is afraid to give his last name," says Walters. "This may be the age-old American dream, but these refugees will not look so jubilant in the days ahead."

The tape cuts to a shelter on Ashland where the men will stay, and then we see them singing in Polish. "It is difficult to do this story without sounding corny or maudlin, but this, after all, is the American experience," says Walters. The final shot is of him seated on a mattress, saying, "These few simple, barren rooms are a beginning for them but a continuation for the rest of us."

It's not a big story, but it demonstrates Walters's skill at storytelling. "Phil could take a simple notion and peel it down like an onion so you'd see its facets, its dimensions," says Channel Two's Carol Marin, who worked with Walters for years. "And I don't care if you're talking about a 7-Eleven robbery or the irony in how you market Father's Day. On TV you can't fake it. It's much more revealing than people think--television strips away whether you are the real thing or a fraud. People get that, especially in Chicago. Phil was an authentic voice and gifted writer. He was one of the best working reporters in this city."

Walters, who'd fought the tabloidization of local television news for 30 years, died of lung cancer in September.

He'd grown up in Washington, D.C., the only child of a supervisor at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and a real estate agent. Walters found his father's bank profession boring. "It seemed a lot to do with numbers--clerical and dry," he once said. "My mother's work was more a part of our life, because there were no absolute hours and things had to be scheduled around her time. Plus she would talk more at home about her tactics. Many a Saturday and Sunday I spent sitting with my mother in some empty house she was showing."

Walters attended Sidwell Friends, a private academy for the children of Washington's elite (Tricia Nixon allegedly had a crush on him). "To me, the two neat things to be were a politician and a newsperson," he said in a 1989 interview. "And the newsmen got the better end of it, because they watched over the politicians." At Williams College he majored in English literature and covered football games with Dave Marash, the future Nightline correspondent, for the college radio station. After graduating in 1964, he wrote for the Providence Journal, then turned to newswriting at WHDH TV in Boston.

He came to Channel Five as a newswriter in 1967 and was soon producing the noon news with host Jorie Lueloff. He was a zealous booker. The day after Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed in a December 1969 police raid, Walters got an explosive Bobby Rush to appear live with Lueloff. Yet Walters was disorganized and always running late. His colleagues dubbed him "Captain Chaos," and the nickname stuck.

Walters first got on the air by freelancing movie reviews. In 1976 he was hired to deliver Washington news for Channel Two and other CBS stations, and three years later he returned to Chicago as a general-assignment reporter, covering crime, politics, and sports and doing features. Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson were then anchoring the nightly broadcasts, and reporters had more freedom to choose their pieces than they do today and more time to deliver them, sometimes as much as three minutes.

Walters was no pretty boy. He had a bald spot that grew with the years, a crooked mouth, and a bemused smirk that the camera caught all too often. He dressed in worn tweed, khakis, and ratty shoes, and his colors clashed. "Phil would match up paisley with plaid," says Marash. "He looked like a cloth traffic accident." His appearance improved when Paula Weiss, who became his second wife in 1978, started buying his clothes and laying them out on the bed in the morning.

The TV scripts Walters wrote matched evocative pictures with simple, often ironic words. After Nelson Algren died in 1981, Walters replayed an interview he'd done six years earlier, when Algren left Chicago. Algren described the city he was leaving: "It's like being married to a woman for keeps, and 25 years later she's a mess." In a voice-over Walters said, "Never mind that he too looked like a mess, that his times were used up, that his good work was all typed out. We are left with his words and his voice." In other memorable segments Walters rode the Goodyear blimp, probed unemployment in Plano, and memorialized Don Jordan's newsstand in City Hall: "Don reloads his newsstand for the next edition. It's like he's reloading a squirrel feeder."

Eventually the station gave Walters his own platform, "In Other Words," for which he wrote quirky weekly essays on such things as trees being cut down next to the station, Jesse Jackson's chameleonic tendencies ("Jesse in a Box"), and the meaning of "quintessential." Walters jumped back to Channel Five in 1986 after a dispute over money. At the time Channel Two's ratings were slipping, "and they were counting their dollars," says Todd Musburger, then Walters's agent.

At Channel Five Walters continued to insist that his cameramen catch the small as well as the large signs of emotion--the sighs as well as the tears. He carefully wrote his scripts on a yellow legal pad and then, if possible, sat through the editing process, demanding that the piece have the nuances he wanted. "No, I don't like that," he'd tell a video editor. "Back it up three frames." Hal Bernstein, a cameraman who frequently worked with Walters, says, "More often than not they'd finish the piece 30 seconds before it went on the air."

Walters was perfectly capable of doing dumb pieces. One Thanksgiving evening he was dispatched to do a take on last-minute preparations. "The sun is setting and store shoppers are hefting glaciated birds that still must somehow get thawed and roasted in a matter of hours," he said, standing in a grocery aisle. "If misery loves company, this should make you feel better."

He delighted in covering the Chicago cardinals' trips to Rome, the 1996 Democratic National Convention, and the Bulls playoffs, but he also grew frustrated as the emphasis on crime-oriented news increased and time slots shrank. He seldom got along with management. He was direct and was quick to tell his bosses when he was angry.

Though he would win many awards, including eight local Emmies, he was chronically insecure. He worried about being fired, worried about his status. "Do you think they [his bosses] are going to say anything to me?" he'd ask colleagues after a piece he was proud of had aired. Channel Five political reporter Dick Kay says, "He was like a kid, seeking that approval--in a business where you're only as good as your last story."

In 1998 the Chicago-Midwest chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences honored people who'd been in the business for 25 years, among them the long-retired Walter Jacobson and Jorie Lueloff. Walters noticed that he wasn't among them. "He read about it in the paper, and he was hurt," says Paula Weiss, a publicist turned realtor. "Somehow he felt overlooked. He wanted to know that his work was valued, but after all, he was a street reporter in a day when anchors drive the business."

The year before, Walters had been appalled when shock-show host Jerry Springer was brought in to do commentaries on the evening broadcast. When an outraged Marin and then coanchor Ron Magers left the station, Walters joined other staff in signing a letter of protest to NBC president Robert Wright. General manager Lyle Banks called him into his office. Dick Kay says Walters told Banks, "I think you're wrong, and I'd sign the letter again." On Marin's final newscast a sullen Walters stood right behind her, but he never really considered leaving. "He had a family to feed," says Marash, adding that Walters took pleasure in the fact that after Marin and Magers left Channel Five's ratings dropped dramatically.

Walters and Weiss had had a son, Tyce, in 1986, when Walters was 44. He taught his son to fish and play chess, and he began going to the theater after Tyce developed an interest in plays. "We were friends and father and son," says Tyce. "I don't know if it can be described, we were so close."

Walters talked incessantly about Tyce, to the point that he became overbearing. "That kid was the sun, the moon, and the stars to Phil," says Marin. "I remember the last night of the Democratic convention. All this glitter was flying from the ceiling. Phil brought Tyce down because he wanted him to experience this amazing night. I remember the look in Phil's eye--he was showing his son one of the rewards of being a reporter."

Gardening was also a passion. Walters began with plots on the farm he and Weiss owned in Janesville, Wisconsin, and at their house in Lincoln Park. After they sold the farm and moved to Northfield, he put in new beds. "The gardening totally relaxed him," says Weiss. "He would come home and go out to his land." In summer and fall he would deposit loads of cucumbers and tomatoes on the desks at Channel Five.

The public seemed to see him as one of them. "You go out with some guys, and they aren't recognizable to people," says Hal Bernstein. "But people always recognized Phil. You'd walk into a coffee shop, and they say, 'Oh, it's Phil.' And he loved being recognized."

Edward R. Murrow had been Walters's childhood idol, and many people thought it odd that he never moved to a network job. "The network had been what Phil aspired to--going to war zones," says Weiss. "But it just never happened for him. Then Tyce was born, and he was glad he hadn't gone. Most of his friends who were network correspondents had divorced at least once." Stan Bernard, a longtime NBC network reporter, says, "Being a network correspondent is nice, but that wasn't Phil's lot. The industry is expecting more and more of reporters and giving them less time. Phil had Paula and Tyce. He was happy with his life."

Walters had smoked for years. It was an issue for Weiss, and he hid it from Tyce. His son only learned of his father's habit when he was ten and a friend told him he'd seen Walters smoking. Of course everyone at work knew. He smoked in the office at the Merchandise Mart, then in the smoking room near the cafeteria at the NBC Tower. When the smoking room vanished he went outside by the loading dock. Company policy outlawed smoking in the TV trucks, so Walters puffed outdoors. Once he made the mistake of lighting up in a van, and a cameraman kicked him out.

He tried to quit, and in 1998 he finally succeeded. Then last March when his father, who'd come to live with him, was dying of lymphoma, Walters came down with the flu. He had a cough that lingered, and in April he got an X ray. It showed a tumor in his right lung.

On May 4 Walters posted a memo on the bulletin board in the newsroom and sent copies to everyone by E-mail. He apologized for not sharing his news in person. "But I fear that, at the moment, I seem to possess neither the courage nor the grace of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin or Attorney General Jim Ryan. And so, please understand if I resort to a writer's chief instrument of defense, the typewriter....I am beginning treatment for lung cancer discovered a few weeks ago."

He ended, "While I have your attention, I would like to add two things. To my fellow alumni of the smoking lounge, no one knows better than I how insidious tobacco addiction is, how it can cause otherwise intelligent and rational people to deny and delay. Having finally triumphed but too late, I would be the last to scold or judge. But I would like each of you to give quitting one more try. Neither you nor, more importantly perhaps, those who love you, should have to face a fight like this. It turns out that quitting is not nearly as tough as not quitting....

And to everyone: I would like to ask that when I return later this week that you treat this as matter-of-factly as possible. Think of it as a cat with a difficult fur ball, if that will help. And we'll talk. In person. It'll be okay. Honest."

Walters embarked on what he called "Phil's excellent adventure." He said he was sure he'd conquer his cancer, and for a time that attitude seemed justified. He took off Tuesdays so he could be treated. He didn't lose any hair, and aggressive chemotherapy and radiation shrank the tumor by 70 percent. In June he threw himself a 57th birthday party for 50 friends, including a snowplow driver he'd met while reporting the January blizzard.

And he kept working. In July he did a memorable story about the delivery of the skull of Second City's Del Close to the Goodman Theatre, where it would be used in Hamlet. "Actor-director Del Close is making his first public appearance since dying last March," said Walters. "Talk about a comeback."

In August he took a medical leave of absence and spent time at his family's cabin in Massachusetts, first alone and then with Tyce. His doctors at Evanston Hospital had thought his tumor was inoperable, but then they decided to try surgery. A date was scheduled in early September so that Walters could recover in time for Tyce's bar mitzvah in October.

The first procedure removed part of his right lung. "I talked to him five hours after the surgery," recalls Marash. "He bragged about how he was the hero of the hospital. He had just walked up the hall, and the nurses were standing there with their jaws dropping." But there were complications. A second operation removed the whole lung, and then he got pneumonia. He died September 13.

It was a Sunday, and channels Five and Two gave his death prominent play on the nightly news. Kay came in to do an obituary. Marin returned to Channel Five for the first time since her departure to pay him tribute.

"Phil could construct a piece of art out of a piece of news," says Marin. "What Phil did isn't done by a lot of us today. It's a rare thing." Musburger says, "Many people hired today have gone to video school, have a nice smile, and jump in front of a camera. But they don't know who's in charge or how to tell a story. Where are we going to replace Paul Hogan [a dogged Channel Five reporter who died in 1993] or Phil?"

Seven hundred mourners attended the memorial service for Walters at Temple Jeremiah in Northfield on September 16. A blown-up publicity photo of him dominated the sanctuary. Marin and Stan Bernard were among those who gave eulogies. A friend read a letter from Marash, who was in the Balkans.

Twelve-year-old Tyce was the last person to speak. He read "Nothing Gold Can Stay" by Robert Frost, his father's favorite poet. And he said, "Dad always said there were too many newscasters in the world, but not enough journalists."

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