Dora Walters would interview Jimmy Carter, Ben Franklin and Bill Clinton if she could choose any three people in history.
She did, in fact, interview Carter. Back in 1974, he made an early campaign stop in Sarasota, but few took his candidacy seriously. Walters was the only reporter who showed up and wound up talking for nearly an hour to the future commander-in-chief about everything from peanut farming to why he was running for office.
She would travel back in time to meet Franklin. She would like to ask him: “How did you find time to do all those things?”
“I think I’d like to meet Bill Clinton because he has such tremendous charisma,” Walters said. “I’d kind of like to see if the charisma could work for me.”
Walters featured the famous as well as the infamous during her career as a reporter.
Some make for especially colorful stories — such as when Karl Wallenda told her he only braved the tightrope for the martini on the other side or when she viewed the effects of a phosphate dam break from a caravan with then-Gov. Reubin Askew.
But the majority of her stories, which featured ordinary citizens, were every bit as important to Walters.
“I don’t think of anyone as famous,” Walters said. “I always felt that when I was interviewing someone, I gave them my full attention. It was their moment.”
If you’re a veteran Longboater, you’ve probably smiled for Walters’ camera. You might have given her a scoop or spilled your life story to her. There’s a good chance the end result is framed, hanging in your home, the story’s byline reading: “Dora Walters | Senior Editor.”
This season won’t be different than past seasons in most respects.
There will be potlucks and St. Paddy’s Day parties, along with Town Hall meetings in which the clock will slowly tick toward midnight.
But, for the first time in more than a quarter of a century, Walters won’t be documenting it with her camera and notepad.
Walters retired this season, 26 years after Longboat Observer founders Ralph and Claire Hunter hired her.
Former Longboat Observer Turtle Watch columnist Virginia Sanders, a longtime friend of Walters’, has at least three framed stories that Walters wrote featuring either herself or her late husband, Jack, hanging in her home. There are probably “a zillion other people” who know Walters and have her work hanging in their homes, she said.
“It’s going to take a long, long time and many, many years of work to match her,” Sanders said.
Walters doesn’t like to admit it, but in her 26 years of shining her spotlight on others, she became a celebrity in her own right.
Her friends and colleagues dubbed her “Dora the Explorer” because she goes so many places and meets so many people.
But decades before the cartoon Dora the Explorer was even a rough sketch, a first-grade girl in western Massachusetts named Dora sat down at an old typewriter her father gave her. She taught herself to type.
And she decided at that moment she would become a journalist.
Her first published piece was a letter to the editor on the “kiddy page” of her local newspaper.
“My complaint was I didn’t understand why I couldn’t get the bus at my house,” Walters said. “All the other kids got picked up at their houses, but I would have to walk quite a ways.”
Apparently, Walters made her point. Soon after, the bus came to her home.
At Boston University, where she majored in journalism and public relations, Walters worked for the year book and earned enough to cover the costs of her tuition.
She then began what she calls a “checkered” career that included stints at the Schenectady Gazette in New York and the Burlington Free Press in Vermont. She later took on public-relations work in New York City and then used her severance pay when that job ended to go to Mexico. She traveled through the country writing stories for an organization to show donors where their money went.
After returning, she married Otto, a Swiss artist she had met while living in New York City. She moved in the 1960s to Florida and first began writing for the now-defunct Sarasota News.
She later wrote for the St. Petersburg Times, became the first woman reporter for Channel 13 and eventually director of the nightly news for Channel 40.
Walters’ coverage usually included “everything south of the Skyway Bridge.”
Sometimes the assignment led to major stories.
In 1965, Dr. Carl Coppolino was charged with murdering his lover’s husband in New Jersey, then killing his wife, Carmela, at their Longboat Key home.
Sheriff Ross Boyers invited Walters and another trusted reporter into his home to fill them in on a Sunday morning just before Coppolino’s arrest.
The trial became such a media circus that the judge moved it to Naples.
F. Lee Bailey defended Coppolino, who was found guilty of murdering his wife. Walters had heard that the day the jury reached a verdict a big party was waiting in a local hotel in expectation of Coppolino’s acquittal.
Walters was working for the Longboat Times in 1987, when the Hunters lured her away.
“A lady with that much experience, I was interested in,” Ralph Hunter said. “Dora was interested in everybody and had unlimited energy.”
Walters covered the grand openings of many of the condominiums that today line Gulf of Mexico Drive. She became a regular fixture at events.
“She used to run around like a chicken with her head cut off and a camera over one shoulder and a notepad in her hand,” said former Longboat Key Mayor Jeremy Whatmough.
She also covered Longboat Key Town Commission meetings in her earlier years with the Longboat Observer. She learned to predict commissioners to such precision that she could tell when one was about to get angry and be ready for a dramatic photograph.
She stayed with the Longboat Observer after Matt and Lisa Walsh bought the newspaper from the Hunters in 1995.
“To me, she is the classic news woman, newspaper reporter,” Matt Walsh said. “She has an insatiable curiosity about things, but, most of all, she just has this innate instinct for news and for wanting to know what’s going on.”
Walters didn’t just cover the community; she became a part of it.
She often rang the bell for the Salvation Army at the Key’s Publix during the holidays and both attended and covered events such as the former St. Jude Gourmet Luncheon and Interfaith Thanksgiving Service.
She received the 2002 Kiwanis Club of Longboat Key “Citizen of the Year” award for her service to the community.
If Walters were to write her memoir, she would call it “Ringside Seat on the World.”
She isn’t planning to write an autobiography, although lately, she has been writing down anecdotes — like when, the other day, she remembered covering a drug plane that had crashed in North Port. She was wearing new sandals, so a deputy she knew carried her across the field.
Walters sold her house in Sarasota late last year but might still winter here, although she plans to spend most of the year in Blue Ridge, Ga., where she has a home near her good friends, former Longboat Key residents Andrew Hlywa and Dawn diLorenzo.
“Longboat Key and Sarasota will always be close to my heart,” she said.
At the Longboat Observer, she has left a legacy. “The challenge for us,” Walsh said, “is to keep up the Dora tradition of trying to find every little story that’s going on on Longboat Key. Dora was plugged in everywhere, and that’s what made the Longboat Observer a special newspaper. We’ve got to keep Dora’s legacy.”
What: A reception for Senior Editor Dora Walters
When: 4 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29
Where: Longboat Key Center for the Arts, 6860 Longboat Drive S.
Information: Call 383-5509.
South of the border
While working for an American relief agency in Mexico, Walters reported on how donations were used.
The villagers she met had few possessions, so, to show their appreciation, they went outside and picked cactus fruit for her.
Early one morning Walters arrived on the scene of a phosphate dam break on the Peace River in Polk County and surveyed the damage with Gov. Reubin Askew.
The river was already milky white. Estimates suggested that recovery would take at least 10 years.
Walters knew how bad the impact would be when she found the sneakers she was wearing while covering the story a few days later. They had completely hardened, as if she had stepped in wet concrete.
Walters was at the crime scene in 1967, after seven African-American children were murdered in Arcadia.
She filmed and had to remain objective while she watched the good-old-boy sheriff “bungle” the scene, handling evidence with his bare hands.
James Joseph Richardson, the man convicted of the murders, was exonerated more than two decades later.
“It was a tragedy all around,” Walters said.