Walt Bodine was an aristocrat among newsmen and a friend to the people of Kansas City. The long-time journalist, author and talk show host died early Sunday morning. He was 92.
As a reporter, Walt always got the story, and he usually got it first. He wrote like a poet.
This is how he described Truman’s visit to Kansas City during the 1951 floods:
“The Presidential plane, the Independence, is winging back to Washington tonight after taking off from the Kansas City Grandview airport ... a little over an hour ago. The President came home tonight … home to see what the worst flood in American history had done to the land he knows so well.”
His longtime colleague, competitor and friend Charles Grey described Walt’s great gift as the ability to get at the heart of a story. Here’s what he said about Walt’s coverage of the collapse of the Hyatt Hotel more than 30 years ago: “He was getting information on the air as to who these people were. That’s what people wanted to know. Was my son there ... was my brother there? And Walt sensed that. He sensed what the public needed to know. I don’t think anyone came near him."
Walt Bodine was born at 31st and Charlotte on August 27, 1920. He attended Longfellow Elementary and Westport High schools. His curiosity and lifelong love of the vox populi, the voice of the people, began as a soda jerk behind the counter of the family’s All-Night Drug Store at Linwood and Troost.
It was the heydey of the Pendergast Machine. Walt could eavesdrop on gamblers, prostitutes and gangsters.
After an unsuccessful stint in theater, Walt got his first job in broadcasting. The general manager at KDRO in Sedalia gave him one week. Walt said, in retrospect, he could understand why.
“I was talking about somebody named Joe DiMaggio and stuff like that. Friday rolled around ... and he said ‘Do you ever think you’re gonna understand the difference between the American and the National League?’ I came down with a fit of pure honesty and I said, ‘Don’t think so.’”
Walt was fired on the spot.
A couple more broadcast jobs and a stint in the military, and it was 1947.
That’s the year Walt began a 20-year career with WDAF, the NBC affiliate in Kansas City. He wore many hats there -- reporter, anchor and news director.
But it was there that he established himself as a pioneer among talk show hosts.
He and Jean Glenn hosted an innovative show called, simply, “Conversation.” And that’s just what it was. It was broadcast from the tony Breton's Restaurant at 12th and Baltimore, and featured high-caliber guests at the lunch table — authors, performers, politicians.
Robert Kennedy talked informally about running his brother’s Presidential campaign at Walt and Jean Glenn’s table. James A. Michener talked about the inspiration for his best-selling books.
Walt was equally comfortable talking with a Kennedy as he was at the counter of Town Topic, one of his many favorite greasy spoons. He walked the streets of Independence, Missouri with President Harry Truman and the streets of Kansas City with hookers and drunks.
Jim Rice became a fan of Walt’s as a college student and worked with him as a political consultant. He’s remained a lifelong friend. He says Walt was a master conversationalist.
“It was annoying being with Walt in public places," Rice said. "During the course of a meal … four or five people come over (and say) ‘Hi Walt, I heard this or that broadcast.’ And Walt (was) absolutely courteous to a fault. Spoke to everyone”
Walt’s next high-profile position was “Nightbeat” on radio station WHB.
Nightbeat ran from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m., and as Walt would say, brought everyone in to talk about anything.
Walt would later say, "When the calls got really weird, I’d start calling the show ‘Outpatient’ on the air.” Callers, he said, never knew the difference.
Growing up as a Depression-era kid, Walt said he always felt better having more than one job at a time. And most of his career, he did.
During his broadcasting years, he taught at UMKC, freelanced in advertising and political consulting, wrote books, a column for the Squire Newspaper and did a popular commentary for Channel 9 called “What Do You Say to That?”
Alan Bal, one of Walt’s regular photographers at Channel 9, says Walt’s pieces made a difference to the people and places he covered.
“I know we did Hillsdale Bank BBQ,” Bal said. “It’s a bank converted to a restaurant. The next weekend they ran out of food …. because of the appearance of Walt Bodine there. People were always starving to look for a different place, and Walt found ‘em.”
The first Walt Bodine Show was at KMBZ. But in 1983, then-station manager Sam Scott wooed Walt to public radio and KCUR, where he worked for more than two decades. He loved the "listener lines" as much as his wide variety of guests. He cultivated a list of regular shows such as the Food Critics, The Movie Critics, Nature in the City, and historic Kansas City, with the late Jane Flynn.
Patty Cahill, the former general manager of KCUR, learned how important Walt was to the Kansas City community when, by her own admission, she made a bad decision and terminated Walt's show in the ‘90s. The response included pickets and biting media editorials. She was fored to bring him back, a decision she now knows was right.
“Without Walt," Cahill said, “I don’t think we would have come as far as we are in terms of our influence and our part of this community.”
Walt spent his whole life in midtown Kansas City with his wife of over 50 years, Bernadine, who preceded him in death. Together they raised five children: Marty, Tom, Mary, Damien, Joseph and Rebecca.
In the introduction to his first book, What Do You Say To That, Walt wrote:
“If you come along with me, I will hand you a piece of pie in one place and a piece of my mind in another. If you hit a piece of either one that you don’t like, jump to the next chapter, which is bound to be different.”
The passage seems an apt metaphor for the way Walt Bodine lived his long, engaged and animated life.
A memorial service, a celebration of Walt's amazing life, is scheduled to begin at 1 pm, Saturday, March 30, 2013, at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St., Kansas City, Mo.