In her 70s, former Longboat Observer senior editor Dora Walters ran circles around the young Turks in the newsroom. She knew everyone and everything about Longboat Key. "She was our best reporter."
In March 1995, as we were about to take ownership of the Longboat Observer, the newspaper’s founders, Ralph and Claire Hunter, gave a review of each of the staff members we were about to inherit.
“And Dora Walters?”
They sat silent for a few seconds and looked at each other. You knew something was up.
“She’s tough and sometimes prickly,” Claire Hunter said.
They said other things about Dora — good reporter, likes feedback — but those two words, tough and prickly, stuck in my head.
On our first day, Dora was the last of the employees to meet. I braced myself. And then this tiny, white-haired woman — 4 feet, 8 inches and 30 years my elder — walked into the conference room. The vibe immediately signaled the Hunters were not kidding.
Dora looked at me with skepticism, no smile. She seemed engulfed in an electro-shield of suspicion, that of a seasoned journalist who had seen it all — every kook, every scheister politician, horrific crime scenes — and learned to trust no one.
I know I was more nervous than she.
We made no judgments of each other at that meeting. But it was clear that her chief concern was whether the new owners were real newspaper people and journalists. We had to prove ourselves to her.
Likewise, it took little time to realize Dora Walters was a pro and that she, more than anyone, was “The Observer” in the Longboat Observer name. She knew everyone and everything about Longboat Key. She was a keen observer of people, and with nearly 50 years of wisdom from being a news woman, she could sniff out a con artist and a blowhard in an instant.
Lisa Walsh, our longtime executive editor, has seen all of our reporters in nearly 25 years. Two years ago, when I was responding to an email from Dora, Lisa told me, “Tell her she was our best reporter.”
Dora Walters died a week ago, a journalist to the end.
Indeed, Dora Walters was what journalists should be. The consummate journalist — uncompromisingly ethical, a reporter of facts not embellishments. She had an insatiable curiosity and hunger to get the news, first and right. She was polite and respectful to everyone — to the good and the jerks.
She was a striver, always seeking to improve her formidable journalistic skills. In 2008, we asked our staffers to think of their long- and short-term goals. Here’s what Dora, age 81, wrote. Note her humor in the first sentence:
“Ten-year goals are a bit optimistic. Short-term goals are to continue to try to improve my writing and photography and strive to attain the goal of the Observers as successful community newspapers.”
She was an individualist but also a great team player and mentor. She had so much wisdom to share to the youngsters who came through our newsroom — but only if they passed the Dora test.
For Dora, her life was news, information and people. She covered everything for the Longboat Observer, mostly the fluffier, softer news — condo socials, church bazaars, chamber of commerce events, parades. She wrote restaurant reviews. She authored a weekly cooking feature called “In the Kitchen with Dora.”
She was everywhere, taking photos. And in spite of her petite height and size, Dora indeed had the no-fear guts of a reporter determined to get the story and photo. Dora was famous for barking orders to Longboat Key’s many former captains and kings where to stand for group shots. Former Executive Editor Walsh laughs that because Dora was so short, she turned in a lot of group photos looking up at men’s nostrils.
Even so, when controversy erupted at Longboat Key Town Hall or in the police department, though neither of these was Dora’s beat, she knew what was coming before it happened — she was so plugged into the town’s behind-the-scenes chatter and gossip. But she would never reveal her moles inside Town Hall.
The minute tropical storms and hurricanes started blowing our way, Dora was on the Key in her rickety little red Mazda, dressed in rain gear and boots, cameras at the ready. Even in her 70s and early 80s, she relished getting into the eyes of the storms.
We couldn’t hold her back. With her eyesight and hearing fading, it took a near-death experience to be able to order her, “No more.”
It happened one summer while Dora was working on another feature she created, “Exploring with Dora.” Against our better judgment, she persuaded us to let her drive around Florida in search of one-day pleasure trips to share with our readers. One of her trips, fittingly, was to Mount Dora in Central Florida.
On the way home, a dump truck totaled Dora’s Mazda and nearly totaled her. A few weeks after she recovered, she was back at work, this time driving a pickup truck.
Dora had high expectations of herself and of those who worked in the newsroom. She wouldn’t tolerate incompetence. Whenever we hired a reporter out of college, Dora put all of them through the Dora silent, “I’m-watching-you” treatment until they passed the test.
Executive Editor Walsh told all of her new reporters: “Make friends with Dora. Dora knows everyone in town and will be able to help you with sources. She’s a great reporter; you can learn a lot from her.
“One more thing,” Walsh advised. “Woe be unto you if you don’t take this advice.”
Some of them didn’t. And Walsh was right. Dora could deliver a near-fatal cold shoulder.
Many a new, young reporter looked at this “elderly” woman and thought: “Hah, who is this has-been? I don’t need to listen to her.”
But it didn’t take long for these young Turks to see that 70-something Dora ran circles around them and knew way more than they. When they finally realized what a treasure she was and asked Dora for the name of a source or advice, that made Dora melt. Like a hen with chicks.
“Once that happened,” Walsh said, “they had a wonderful friend.”
Indeed. In spite of her tough-journalist veneer, Dora could and did make friends with anyone. At the height of her career on the Key, her fan club would top everyone’s.
For one of our April Fools’ spoof editions, we photographed Dora on the beach dressed up in Army fatigues, camera around her neck. The story said we sent Dora to Iraq, where she was embedded to help feed the troops. A week or so later, Dora went to Temple Beth Israel to cover one of its big events. When the congregants saw Dora, they gave her a standing ovation.
What reporter do you know who would get a standing O?
Dora was beloved. And loved inside the Observer.
Inside her outer shell, she had an incredibly generous heart. On your birthday, you’d find a card on your desk. At Christmas, she handed out to every employee gift-wrapped treats that she baked. When she returned from her summer train rides through Mexico, she came bearing gifts. She took care of sick staffers and friends, never boasting.
With only a few did Dora share her private life. She talked often about her adventures with and the antics of Mackey, her dog. But one day, a few years into our ownership, Dora mentioned “Otto.” Otto? Her husband, an artist. Some of us had no idea she was married.
Otto wasn’t much of a fan of Florida. He liked to spend the summers and fall at their home in the mountains near Morganton, Ga. Otto died 15 years ago. After retiring in 2013, Dora moved permanently to their Georgia home.
Increasingly frail, Dora referred to herself as “Gimpy the Grouch.” She hobbled because of a bum knee, suffered from arthritis and fibromyalgia and had recovered recently from a broken pelvis. But in true Dora fashion, she didn’t stop going.
“Nothing could keep her down,” Dawn DiLorenzo told me the morning after Dora died. “I couldn’t fight her.”
DiLorenzo, a former Longboater and Dora’s closest friend and caretaker for many years, lived next door to Dora. She tucked Dora into bed each night.
On Dora’s last day, she had two things to accomplish: go to the birthday party of a 98-year-old friend and meet her deadline to turn in her weekly column, “Life in the Country,” for the Fannin Sentinel.
It was a typical deadline day. Dora’s laptop “crashed” four times, a weekly occurrence that carried over from the days at the Longboat Observer. But she made it.
Afterward, Dora and DiLorenzo took their nightly ride around Blue Ridge Lake. DiLorenzo tucked Dora into bed around 9 p.m. When DiLorenzo came to her with a dose of Maalox for her stomach, Dora’s last words were: “Oh, shit.”
She died peacefully in her sleep.
Said her former editor Walsh: “She would be PO’d that she died after the Observer’s deadline.”