The spunky, beloved longtime Longboat Observer reporter has died at age 92.
In this week’s "Fannin Sentinel" in Blue Ridge, Ga., you can find Dora Walters’ last contribution to her local paper — one of the many she’s reported for over the years. On Monday, the 92-year-old was in her office typing out the column from Jake, head of security for the community. A snake was trying to get into Petunia Possum’s house, and she was determined to get it done. This was an important one.
Perhaps it should be mentioned that Jake is Walters’ beloved dog. But if you knew Walters, none of the above should come as a surprise.
And, knowing Walters, it was how she would have wanted to spend her last time on Earth. After a full day attending a friend's birthday party and filing her column, Walters died in her Blue Ridge home in her sleep Aug. 6. She was 92.
Walters adopted Jake after she rescued another dog who was a bit too rambunctious for the small-statured woman. Dawn DiLorenzo, who moved from Longboat Key to Georgia with Walters in her later years, was afraid the dog would knock Walters flat on the ground, so they worked to find a new, better home for the dog. But then, Walters, who was rarely without a dog, said she needed another one.
“Every time she wanted another, I would be like, ‘Dora, no more pets,'” DiLorenzo said. “Then we found Jake.”
Before Jake was Mackey, who starred in the April Fool’s issue of the Observer with his Taco Bell review. (Overall, he liked it, but it was a bit too spicy, so he was glad Walters ordered water to wash it down.) Before Mackey, there were others. Once, Walters was coming home from the vet with Mackey, and she told DiLorenzo about the “prettiest little kitty” she had seen there and how she was so sad to leave her.
“Go back, and get her,” DiLorenzo said.
“Really?” Walters said.
And thus, Lottee came into her life. DiLorenzo will take Lottee into her home, and Jake will have a home with Elaine Owen, who owns the Fannin Sentinel where Walters wrote her final columns.
Years ago, a friend of Walters' passed and left her a small inheritance, DiLorenzo said. It wasn’t much, but Walters knew exactly where the money would go: toward helping animals.
“If Dora saw someone in need of animal care of any kind, she would say: ‘Oh, let’s write a check. I’m using the money my friend left me,’” DiLorenzo said. “I’m like, ‘Dora, you used that 25 years ago.”
Dora continued to use “that” money for years; she went to a clinic and made random donations to the first few people who walked in the door. She continually put her money where her heart was regarding animals. If anyone is interested in making a donation in Walters' name, DiLorenzo suggests the Humane Society of Sarasota County.
But back to Jake. He was an author, in fact. Walters was his ghostwriter because it’s quite hard to type when you’re a 20-pound Yorkie. His book, “Life in the Country by Jake, Head of Security” is a compilation of columns he wrote on his security patrolling of the community, complete with a cast of characters that came back week after week. Lottee the cat was his deputy. Walters held several signings for the book over the years, but all the proceeds went directly to the Tri-State Pet Rescue — Jake’s alma mater.
At 92, Walters was sharp as ever. Ask anyone at all who talked with her recently. She still came into the Fannin Sentinel office twice a week, stayed a stickler for deadlines and had her laptop with her constantly.
“Her mind was good,” Owen said. “She was very very bright and never lost that. We used to laugh and say, ‘Well, you know your body deserted you, but it left your mind.’”
Walters still went out for a ride every night with DiLorenzo, when they would look for chanterelle mushrooms.
“She got to be a real little pro, and she could spot a chanterelle down the road,” DiLorenzo said.
DiLorenzo and Walters were together every day, enjoying meals and each other’s company. DiLorenzo knew they were on borrowed time.
“Her memory was mind boggling,” DiLorenzo said. “She was really tough, and her mind — holy mackerel. She was a spunky little spitfire.”
Throughout her whole professional life, which spanned more than six decades (if you count the time before her official retirement from the Longboat Observer in 2013, not the years she spent working after that), there were a few things on which you could always count. Walters armed with her camera and notebook, Walters at every event, Walters in the office on a Sunday, Walters never missing a thing.
“Well, Dora was a minute woman,” said Emily Walsh, publisher for the Observer Media Group. “But with big spirit and also tons of energy. I don't think Dora was ever not working. And she knew everything and everyone.”
When Walsh’s parents, Matt and Lisa, bought the Observer in 1995, Walters was already ingrained, having been there since October 1987. She came with the paper, and she helped get the Walshes up to speed on what to focus on. Walters lived and breathed journalism, Observer Media Group CEO Matt Walsh said.
“I think she was a great mentor and example for young reporters on how to go about their job,” he said. “I mean, she just had this journalism that was incredibly deep and rich in her system.”
“The first time I met her she had an energy and enthusiasm passion for her work and just a warm feeling that she really cared about others,” said Janet Hunter, daughter of Longboat Observer founder Ralph Hunter. “I would say that really embodied what dad and Claire wanted as employees.”
Walters, born Jan. 4, 1927, grew up in South Deerfield, a small town in western Massachusetts. Her mother was a Swedish immigrant, her father a mechanic who ran the local service station. She said she taught herself to type on her father's typewriter when she was in first grade, and that was it — from that moment, she knew she wanted to be a journalist. Not a writer — a reporter. "I'm one of the lucky ones," Walters told the crowd at her Kiwanis Citizen of the Year dinner in 2003. "I always knew what I wanted to be."
Her first published piece was a letter to the editor printed on the "kiddy page" of her hometown newspaper. In it, she asked why the school district had decided the bus should no longer come to her house, which forced her to walk a mile and a half each way to school each day. Even as a fifth grader, her voice was heard. The bus returned.
Walters had a lengthy career as a reporter, filled with a variety of assignments. She was the first female reporter for WTVT-TV in Tampa, where she covered murders and scandals. She even interviewed Jimmy Carter once. She was an old-school reporter, armed with no fear and a notebook, former Longboat Observer town hall reporter Kurt Schultheis wrote in an email.
“This spunky lady would walk right up to the commissioners in the midst of a conversation and ask them a question or take their picture right in the middle of an important debate,” Schultheis wrote. “Because that was the job. She was on deadline, and she didn't care what anyone thought about her approach.”
Walters was set in her ways, and she was meticulous, said Bob Lewis, longtime advertising executive with the Observer Media Group. When digital photography started edging out the old ways of developing photos with chemicals, Walters resisted it until she was convinced it was better. She always told the truth, never exaggerating — a true reporter.
Although tough, Walters is remembered as beloved throughout the community. She spent the summers in Georgia, and every year she was greeted with an item in the paper that let everyone know she was back. This 4-foot-8-inch woman caused town commissioners to straighten up when she walked in a room. She commanded respect and earned love. Several people referred to Walters as an icon with a huge legacy left behind.
“She was so much a part of the fabric of the community,” Kip O’Neill, Village resident and longtime friend of Walters, said. “I mean, you really couldn’t do anything or go anywhere without Dora knowing about it and writing about it.”
O’Neill met Walters at different local events. Over the years, they became great friends, and O’Neill still has a framed article Walters wrote about her husband. There were similar stories of this, such as DiLorenzo’s meeting with Walters. DiLorenzo owned the shopping center in Whitney Beach Plaza at the north end of the island, and they just became closer and closer over the years until they were like mother and daughter, DiLorenzo said.
Walters embodied the perfect balance between being a friend to the island as well as the consummate newswoman. She represented the paper the way its founders would have, said Bruce Hunter, Ralph Hunter’s son. By 2003, Walters was such a deep part of the community that she was awarded Kiwanis Citizen of the Year.
“Her service to community was unparalleled,” Kiwanis member Susan Phillips said. “She never hesitated to chip in to support anything or to promote any good things that were happening in our community. … She never called out anything negative in a person but always found things that were remarkable in any person or anything.”
Laura Ritter, senior multimedia advertising consultant for the Observer and good friend of Walters, said Walters craved recognition, but never asked for it. Jeremy Whatmough, a former Longboat mayor and commissioner, offered similar thoughts.
“She never touted herself,” he said. “She was always kind and praising others.”
Walters started talking more about her late husband, Otto, in the last month, both DiLorenzo and Owen said, though she hadn’t really talked about him much since he passed 14 years ago. Otto and her dogs were always the men in Walters' life.
“(Lisa said) she would always say it together — Otto, Ryan and Mackey, Otto, Ryan and Mackey — you know, her dogs,” former Observer managing editor Robin Hartill said.
Not quite. Hartill recalls a story from Lisa Walsh about one day when Walters was upset because she had told Otto to never visit her at work, but he had showed up that day. Your dog showed up at the office?
He was a Swiss artist she met while living in New York City years ago, amid her job at the bowling alley and her hand in starting the famed Village Voice newspaper. They married after her time in Mexico, where she wrote for a nonprofit and traveled around the country to show donors exactly where their money was going. Before meeting her husband, Walters attended college at Boston University, interning for Newport News in Rhode Island, working as assistant women’s editor for the Springfield Union and reporting for the Schenectady Gazette and Burlington Free Press. In an era when women met their husbands, settled down then left work, Walters was a distinct exception.
Walters was multifaceted: a journalist, an explorer, an animal-lover, an actress. It was hard to have more energy than her or to try to outthink her. She is universally described as huge in personality and small in stature, practical, yet funny, matter-of-fact, yet fiercely her own kind of person.
“When I first met her, she was adjusting her earring, and she said: ‘Before you say anything, I know they’re mismatched. That’s how I like to wear them,’” Owen said.
Walters was always eye-catching and loved being the center of attention, DiLorenzo said. As much as she was a fly on the wall and behind the scenes reporting, at her heart she was an actress.
“She did several plays down there [in Longboat],” DiLorenzo said. “Her crowning moment was to be in those plays.”
Given all she packed into her 92 years, it’s no wonder she earned the nickname Dora the Explorer. She was the original.
“I think she’s still exploring, exploring a whole new life out there,” Owen said.
Sten Spinella contributed to this story.