WHEN YOU MAKE YOUR LIVING writing words, most of the time things come pretty easy. You have a topic and you have a viewpoint and you just begin to write. Sentences turn into paragraphs which turn into pages.
Today, I have no words.
Most of you didn’t know Don Wallis, Jr. He has lived for the past several years in Yellow Springs, Ohio, but has continued to serve as the Publisher of Vevay Newspapers – our owner – and also as a mentor and friend.
Don also is a published author, writing books about the Ohio River and relaying the works of his longtime friend Harlan Hubbard; along with a book focused on growing up as an African-American in Madison, spending hours doing interviews with residents and gathering “their story” so he could retell it to his readers.
I can be prone to overstatement at times, but I have very carefully considered this next sentence:
Don Wallis was the best writer I’ve ever known, and he’s the best writer I’ve ever read.
Don Wallis passed away unexpectedly on Monday of this week, and his passing leaves a huge hole in the fabric of this newspaper and in the hearts of those who worked for him and knew him.
I remember a few years ago trying to figure out something to get him for Christmas, so I wandered into a bookstore and asked if they had any books focusing on the Ohio River.
“Why yes, in fact we have a new book by a fantastic writer that we can’t keep on the shelves because it’s been so popular,” the clerk told me. “We have one copy left, and I’m sure he’ll love it.”
“Sorry, but I can’t give him this,” I told the clerk when she handed it to me. “He wrote it.”
Don Wallis used to serve as the editor of Vevay Newspapers, starting here in 1972 as a 29-year old, steering it to the state’s “Blue Ribbon” award as the best weekly in Indiana shortly thereafter. In 1974, the Indiana State Teachers Association presented him with the “School Bell” award for outstanding media contributions to education.
In the late 1970s, he moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he became editor and part owner of The Yellow Springs News.
Even in Ohio, Don still kept tabs on Switzerland County and the friends he had here. His family resided in Madison, so he would find time for trips here at various times.
In 1984, I came to Switzerland County, and became acquainted with Don mainly through telephone calls. His father, Don Wallis, Sr., was the publisher of The Madison Courier, and his sister, Jane Jacobs, at that time served as the assistant publisher.
Don was an ardent reader of the Vevay Newspaper, and he also sent his Yellow Springs News here for me to read on a weekly basis. The village of Yellow Springs is similar to Vevay in many ways, but the residents there held a more liberal and laid back approach to life.
I remember once commenting that the Yellow Spring paper didn’t have much sports coverage, considering it had a college – Antioch College – in the town.
“Kids at Antioch aren’t into sports,” Don told me. “They’re much more likely to attend a peace rally than a football game.”
My career path diverted along the way, and while I was at The Madison Courier, Don came back to Switzerland County to run this newspaper. It was then that I got to know him personally. I got to know the man and not just the writer. I saw his passion for issues and his compassion for people.
He taught me what it really meant to be a “community journalist”.
He never shied away from an issue, and didn’t mind raising a little hell over it if needed. He firmly believed that a community paper worked best when it served as a means where information could be exchanged, and from that, the community would grow and be better for it.
That’s why you won’t see letters to the editor without someone’s name on it. Don always believed that if you held to an opinion strongly enough to write about it, then you should be able to sign your name at the bottom of what you believe.
But he also believed in the other side of that issue. If you state your opinion, others reading it who didn’t share the same opinion should be able to read what you wrote, form their own letter based on information and not anger, and submit it.
Everyone gets to see all sorts of opinions from all areas of the county.
Not so much a “county”, but rather a “community”.
After all, that’s what we are, a community of friends and neighbors.
A cancer surgery in 1994 drew Don to the conclusion that he had a lot of life left to live, and he wanted to live it to the absolute fullest, so he enlisted me to come back and run this newspaper. For the first couple of years he was here, too, living in his cabin on the river; but wandering in and out as he saw fit.
Once he came into the office and said he was going to lunch, and when he got back we had some things to talk about. With that, out the door he went.
And I waited.
Three days later he called me from Maine. Seems that on his way to lunch he ran into some friends who were going with some friends to Maine, and he thought that would be a cool thing to do, so he went along.
That was Don, living each and every moment to his complete and utter enjoyment.
Although he was a pretty laid back guy (not many of you have a boss whose email address starts with “seedman”), he was, to the very end, passionately committed to the role that this newspaper and other community newspapers play in providing information to their readers. He believed that our right to provide information was something worth fighting for, and our individual rights as citizens were just as critical.
I remember once when the Indiana State Police served me with a warrant to obtain negatives of some photos that I had taken at an accident scene. “Don’t give them to them,” Don told me. “Under no circumstances should you give them your photos.”
“But we’re talking jail,” I said.
“No problem, I’ll bail you out,” was his response.
Another time he wanted my daughter, Emily to travel to Washington, D.C. with a group of high school kids from Yellow Springs who were going to protest some issue.
“I’ll pay all of her expenses,” he told me. “And tell her there’s a bonus in it if she gets hauled off to jail.”
He was kidding, of course.
At least I think he was.
But he’s also the man who, when I told him of my daughter Hilary’s hearing and vision issues, told me to “Take her where you need to take her and do what you have to do, and don’t worry about what it’s going to cost, we just want the very best doctors for her.”
That is the man I knew. That is the man I’ll miss dearly. There aren’t many people who, at the end of the day, you can say you are truly better for having known, but I can say that about Don. He trusted me with one of his most precious things, his newspaper; and I will forever be indebted to him for that trust and faith.