Donn Walden with his wife Jenn and children Addison, 11, and Nolan, 10.

By Don Shelton

I’ve never met Donn Walden, but I feel like I know him.

We talked on the phone a few times, texted once or twice and traded a lot of emails when he needed some advice or intern candidates. He was the sports editor of the Lewiston Tribune and its sister publication, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. I was a longtime sports editor and now an adjunct professor of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho.

We talked about getting together several times when I was in northern Idaho to teach, but it never happened. Donn was always was too busy. Getting ready for the NAIA College Baseball World Series. Scrambling to put the high school football preview section to bed. Or just working late.  

“Sorry,” he’d say. “Let’s do it the next time you’re in town.”

I understood. I knew all too well his unrelenting grind, and that of countless other sports editors in smaller towns. I was a sports editor for more than 35 years at newspapers big and small before retiring from The Seattle Times in 2019.

“Next time,” I’d say.

Next time never happened. Donn Walden died April 15 from complications after a stroke. He was 50 years old. He is survived by his wife and two children, Addison, 11, and Nolan, 10.

Like so many of us, I was stunned and saddened when I heard the news. Donn was a passionate member of the Associated Press Sports Editors, the national organization that brings us together and recognizes our hard work. He served on APSE committees and as vice chair of the Northwest Region, and his staff won national awards.

Yet Donn Walden’s story, as sad as it is, represents what is good about APSE and being a sports editor. His death was tragic, but the response to losing a friend and colleague is inspiring.

First came a Go Fund Me campaign, begun by a friend but amplified on social media by colleagues on Walden’s staff and from around the country. Teren Kowatsch, a Tribune reporter and Idaho graduate, posted a photo of Walden’s family and a memorial to his late boss on Facebook.

“I’ve had the benefit of having a lot of people support me and believe in me in my career,” he wrote two days after Walden died. “Donn was my first boss and he quickly became a friend. … Very few people get lucky enough to have a boss who’s legitimately in your corner. Fewer people are lucky enough to have a boss you can call your friend.”

Most journalists feel that way about someone we’ve worked with. And whether we know it or not, others probably feel that way about us because we’ve paid it forward.

Stephan Wiebe, another Idaho grad hired by Walden, said the 3½- person staff is scrambling as high-school sports sprint to the finish line and the NAIA World Series in Lewiston looms May 26-June 2. As the search for a new sports editor begins, the games don’t stop. Many are stepping up – Trib sports alumni, volunteers in other departments and freelancers.

Support has flooded in for the Walden family – emails, texts, phone calls, sympathy cards, meals and gift cards.

APSE, the organization Walden loved, established a grant to help sports editors from smaller-circulation publications attend the APSE Summer Conference in Las Vegas, July 9-12. The Donn Walden Leadership Grant will contribute $1,000 in expenses annually for someone who otherwise might not be able to attend.

“It is the way it’s supposed to work,” wrote APSE President Jorge Rojas in announcing the grant. “Donn took great pride in his involvement with APSE … Our organization, which consists of more small publications than large ones, has always needed more Donn Waldens. He was visible in his participation and enthusiasm, and that in itself made him a recognized leader among our editors.”

My last trip of the spring semester from the Seattle area to Idaho included a visit to the Lewiston Tribune, where I had interned 47 years before. Publisher Nathan Alford asked me to share digital insights from my time as sports editor and executive editor at The Seattle Times. I attended news and planning meetings, shared advice with the digital director and traded stories over dinner with newsroom leaders and two of my mentors – former publisher Butch Alford and Paul Emerson, a retired Trib sports editor and managing editor who took a chance on me as an intern. Sometimes life brings you full circle.

Yet something still gnawed at me. I knew I had to see one more person before I left Lewiston.

Jenn Walden and I met the next morning at a Lewiston coffee shop. She talked about the ups and downs of their four-year adventure in Idaho, Donn’s heartbreaking final days, and the daunting prospect of raising an autistic son and grief-stricken daughter alone. But she also shared her husband’s love for sports journalism and his APSE colleagues.

“He was so proud of his staff and of the awards they had won,” Jenn said. “He worked so hard, and that recognition validated what he had accomplished. I had no idea how many sports editors he knew and had touched. So many have reached out to us, and that has meant so much.”

If he had lived, Donn Walden no doubt would be working long hours planning another NAIA College Baseball World Series, which is the city’s biggest sports event and is hosted annually by Lewis-Clark State College. He would have covered a few games, but mostly he would have been back at the office doing what sports editors do – assigning, editing and posting stories, designing pages and taking care of every detail for his staff and his readers.

Jenn paused between sips of a berry smoothie at the coffee shop. “You know, I’d love to take the kids to a game,” she said. “Donn loved covering the World Series. I feel like I need to be there.”

Wish granted. Jenn and her kids will be sitting in the bleachers during the tournament enjoying some sunshine and perhaps forgetting for a few moments all they’ve been through. The Tribune, Lewis-Clark State College and the NAIA will make sure passes are waiting for them.

Jenn and her kids won’t be alone. The other part of Donn Walden’s legacy will be at the World Series, too. Up in the press box, the writers he nurtured will keep watch, scribbling in scorebooks and pounding out stories just like their late boss would have wanted. 

Don Shelton was sports editor at three newspapers, retiring in 2019 as executive editor of The Seattle Times, where he worked for 32 years. He teaches journalism at his alma mater, the University of Idaho. He has been a member of APSE since the 1980s and served as executive director of the APSE Foundation.