Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sundays with Steve - One of those Unforgettable People

These Sunday's segments are written by my husband, Mr. Jenny. Here's what he has to say about his posts:

I’ve been writing these weekly stories about life in Northern Idaho, as a youngster and as growing into a young man, primarily for our family. And I'm delighted to share them with you. Just between us, I’m anticipating being cranky when some whipper-snapper who may not even be born yet harasses me in 30 years or so with 'Grandpa, tell me about when you were a boy.' That will probably be after the mad cow disease has set in and erased whatever memory is left. So these are the not-so-dramatic adventures of a Baby Boomer in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

ONE OF THOSE UNFORGETTABLE PEOPLE

Don Watkins had a mischievous twinkle in his 50-year old eye, he was a natural-born wise-guy who delighted in stirring up any pot -- and he was a guiding hand to hundreds of young journalists moving into their professions over the decades, including me.

Watson was of a slight build, short, thin, weathered, not much hair left on top, but always wore a grin with smile wrinkles pulling around the eyes. A cigarette invariably was in his hand, plus a cocktail after 6 most evenings. He was engaging, probing, perceptive and humorous,

He was a “political hack”, in that he gave media relations advice to the state’s politicians for decades, working their campaigns before settling back to the Idaho Board of Education where he worked in the non-campaign years as the public spokesman for that state government agency. He was also a weekend reporter and editor for the old United Press International (UPI).

He reached out to me in my junior year in college, a touch on my shoulder that changed my life.

I found myself that year as the chairman of a regional convention of college journalists. It was one of those jobs causally muttered, ‘yes, ok, I guess I’ll do it,’ that turned out to be over-whelming. It was one of those jobs that once accepted, you say to yourself, “I have no idea how to do this, I don’t know where to even start.”

This was the spring of 1970, the 1968 U.S. civil rights riots were still fresh, Vietnam protestst were still going very strong, and President Nixon would resign in a few years. There was a lot of interest in what the “baby boomers” were thinking and doing.

About 2,500 college students attended the three day convention that was mostly seminars and panel discussions, heavy interaction between the college writers and professional media representatives. What surprised me most was the feeding frenzy among national media types for an invitation to speak or participate in the convention: Newspaper reporters and publishers, national television reporters, magazine writers, a media flack from the White House, and others. We ended up with about 80 different professional journalists and other media types.


Watson called my college apartment one day, introduced himself as the head of public relations for the Idaho Board of Education, and asked for an invitation. And oh, he said, there are one or two others who would like to be invited too, which in the end, they were.

Watson’s influence was heavy on me over the next ten years, from having the State’s next governor hire me that year onto his campaign staff, to ghost writing editorial columns that drew an amazing amount of attention at my weekly newspaper, years later. I’ll get into a lot of that in future stories.

Like I said, Watson loved to stir up the pot, create a bit of controversy, and laugh at the results. He was very, very good at that.

At our little college convention, he did it again -- I don’t think he could help himself -- when he put this on the UPI newswire:

SUN VALLEY, ID (INS) A nationally known television newscaster last night claimed he was misquoted yesterday in a UPI dispatch which quoted him as saying he would go to jail if necessary to avoid revealing a confidential source.

NBC correspondent Tom Pettit charged the UPI had taken his words out of context. Pettit said what he really said was “I will go to jail if necessary to visit my confidential sources.”

However, UPI’s crack Sun Valley bureau chief, Don Watkins, veteran of an all night drinking bout Thursday, claimed he would stand by his earlier account. Watkins said, “I heard it with my own two ears from an anonymous source who claimed to have heard Pettit’s controversial remarks.”

Watkins immediately disclosed his own source as Sam Day, editor of the left-leaning Intermountain Observer, a Boise publication known to have anti-police tendencies. Day told INS he had not seen Watkins since around 3:30 a.m. Friday when a minor disturbance occurred in a hallway of the venerable Sun Valley Lodge, where the 1970 convention of the Rocky Mountain Press Assn. is taking place.

A spokesman for the convention disclaimed any knowledge of either Pettit or the disturbance involving Watkins, but claimed that the posh setting of the convention provided an ideal venue for the youthful college journalists to discuss America’s problems. The spokesman said: “These (expletive deleted) establishment ( expletive deleted ) come here from their (expletive deleted) establishment news agencies and try to tell us how to run our (expletive deleted) college newspapers. They need to go home, so we can do some good here.”

###

I was of course the spokesman he quoted. And there was a disturbance involving Watson and the Governor of Colorado who had the misfortune of having a room on that very noisy floor that evening.

Watkins died in the late 1970s, a result of one of the early open heart surgeries in that state, a loss that effected many, including me. Thirty years later, he is not forgotten.

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
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3 comments:

Ms. A said...

I'm confused. (not unusual) Were you misquoted or quoted correctly?

You sure have lead an interesting life! I'd be happy just to have memories of my less than interesting one.

Steve said...

Yes, it was all fiction.

H said...

Significant elders can have a lasting influence on our lives. I remember one similar when I was a teen :)