Walt Philbin's legendary career as a New Orleans newspaperman might never have gotten off the ground if it weren't for an elementary school spelling bee.
In 1971, Walt was applying again for work at the now-defunct States-Item, one of his hometown newspapers. They'd passed on him before, saying he was too green, and it looked like they were ready to do the same thing again.
Until there was a strange coincidence mixed with divine intervention that only seems to happen in New Orleans and, in particular, to Walt.
Turns out Walt's aunt's daughter's best friend's parents were neighbors and close friends of States-Item Editor Walter Cowan. His mother told her sister to tell the best friend's mother to talk to Cowan on Walt's behalf and she did, telling him, "Walter won the 8th grade spelling bee at Holy Name of Jesus! You don't pass up Walter! That boy is a genius!"
Walt got a six-month tryout and never left, staying on after the States-Item was absorbed by the Times-Picayune in 1980. For decades, he led the city's police coverage while showing the ropes to dozens of younger reporters, myself included.
In December, Walt, 64, hung up his fedora yes, he still wears one every day and left the Times-Picayune to begin writing his great American novel. As he and other longtime newspaper folk take their final bows and buyouts taking their institutional memory and amazing stories with them I can't help but reflect on how lucky I was to work with him.
Walt is one of my favorite journalists. More than that, he's one of my favorite people.
Professionally, he is a throwback to a different time, when reporters smoke and drank while working, when "Get me rewrite!" still echoed across newsrooms, when shoe leather reporting was the only reporting. After all these years, he still gets excited about a story.
"Walt taught generations of reporters how to report," says Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss. "They watched him juggle phone calls, cradling a receiver to each ear, disarming and sweet-talking cops and lawyers and crime victims. Walt could talk his way into the freshest murder scene, the most cordoned-off hospital room, without seeming alien or nervy. Rookies learned from him that no story is ungettable, no fact unfindable, no tight-lipped source immune to his combination of charm and doggedness."
Walt never had an internship, never studied journalism, never spearheaded the school paper or wrote letters to the editor. He decided he wanted to be a newspaperman after serving in Vietnam simply because "I liked writing letters back to my cousins."
As a person, Walt is one of a kind. The quintessential New Orleans character, he mixes joy in the city and its customs with just the right amount of crazy. (He brought a dead rattlesnake into the office after its owner died in a motorcycle accident with it aboard because he thought the rattler deserved a decent burial.) He'll do anything to help anyone: I once saw him literally offer someone the shirt off his back. (It was politely declined.) After all the horrible things he's seen and personally experienced he's covered the murder of a friend, the shooting of a coworker, the theft of a fellow reporter's ashes; reported from the city the day Hurricane Katrina struck; and lost his home in the ensuing flood he remains incredibly optimistic. Conversations are punctuated with cries of "Golly!" and "Would you believe that?" and "Incredible!"
Those who know and marvel at Walt will tell you you've never heard a story until it's related in his distinctive style, which involves numerous asides, questions, assumptions that you know everyone who has lived in New Orleans since the turn of the century just like he does, and exclamations of excitement. We spent hours on the phone as I interviewed him for this article, as his recollections, as usual, tended to wander off course.
Walt's exuberance sometimes gets in the way of his storytelling. But during our interview, I was able to keep him on track because I've had lots of practice: Back when we sat side by side at the Picayune, he would burst into the newsroom, notebook in the air, eager to pour out all the details he'd gathered. But then he'd freeze, unsure of where to begin.
So I'd call his extension and be his rewrite man, turning his notes into prose while our coworkers walked by us wondering, "Are they on the phone WITH EACH OTHER?" It was what he was used to. In fact, during his first week at the States-Item, an editor noticed him struggling to get a story out and instructed him to go elsewhere and call him on the phone. He did, and the story flowed. Two editors thrilled with his newsgathering and noting his slower writing pace happily exclaimed, "We've got a leg man! God, we've finally got a leg man!"
"I said, 'What's a leg man?'" Walt recalls.
Walt was the consummate leg man. He was a genius at getting a story, whether convincing reluctant people to talk or obtaining documents no official source wanted you to see. During his first day at work in New Orleans, a lone gunman atop a downtown hotel was laying siege to the city. Walt was told to go to the police station and listen to the radio. He did, and was so excited by everything he heard that he called in every 10 or 15 minutes to tell the city editor what he was hearing. Walt remembers, "After the third or fourth time, he said, 'Walter,' in his calmest tones, 'why don't you just call me every couple of hours? When
you hear things, just jot it down in your notebook.'"
In his first months on the job, Walt's byline appeared under headlines like, "Butcher Comes to Breakfast" and "Red Beans Chopped up Mama." ("Red Beans" was a man's nickname.) It appeared atop a blank column after a judge banned reporters from a meeting with lawyers during a murder case, with one sentence informing readers that they would be reading a story in this space if the judge hadn't acted unfairly. He had the kind of immediate, on-the-job training that only New Orleans could provide: Upon arriving at the home of a couple who had just learned their daughter, who had been missing, had been found dead, he was pulled inside by the girl's father. "Everyone was crying," Walt recalls. "I didn't even know whether to pull my notebook out, whether to be a human being or reporter."
When an arsonist destroyed a French Quarter club, killing 32 people, Walt was on the scene before the coroner's office, staring at bodies pressed against burglar bars that had held them captive on the second floor. "Tourists would walk along and think it was a Mardi Gras mannequin or something," Walt says. "You knew it was a body, three or four bodies, and they were trying
to get out. It was surreal. I'll never forget that."
Over the years, by hanging out in court and a few select bars, Walt cultivated police source after police source. Cops called Walt and not the other way around. When in 1977 police arrested the so-called "French Quarter Stabber" accused of killing three men one of those sources called from police headquarters. "It was 2:45 in the a.m. I get a call from my source and he's like, 'What the hell are you doing sleeping when the biggest goddamn story in the city is going on in the room right next to me? Not only did we get him, but he spilled his guts on one of 'em and he's still talking. They told us to call our wives and tell them we won't get home until tomorrow afternoon, but I didn't want to call my wife and wake her up. I wanted to wake you up. Let's see what sort of reporter you are,'" Walt remembers.
So Walt got up and reported all night, talking at a seedy hotel to a bunch of drag queens who had been with the suspect when he was arrested, driving across the Mississippi River to interview the man's mother and girlfriend, and getting back in time to have the story done by 6 a.m. and in the paper by 9 a.m. During a press conference later that morning, when the police chief offered minimal details, an exasperated TV reporter held up the paper and said, "Chief, you can't stop. This newspaper has 20 times the amount of information than you just gave us."
"It was like a shiver going down my spine," Walt says. "It beat any award. Oh my God, it was unbelievable."
By the time Walt and I were teamed up in the late 1990s, he could have been jaded or worse. Instead, he still loved the game. He never lost his thrill for the big story, the search.
I'll never forget when we were working a story about a French Quarter bar owner who had been kidnapped, then murdered. Going bar to bar, we found a man who said he had some information. Walt invited him into our car and, with him in the backseat and us in the front seats, it quickly became clear to me the man was no good. I kept saying, "Out. I want him out of this car. Now," while Walt would say, "Aw, c'mon, Natalie. He's a good guy. He's going to help us out, aren't you? Come on." (We did get information from the man, and it did turn out to be reliable.) Walt later said he thought we'd done a fine job playing "good cop/bad cop." I said, "Are you kidding me? I wasn't playing!"
When we worked side by side, Walt seemed to know every cop on the force. Or, if not the officers themselves, then their parents or siblings or aunts or uncles. He always found an in. When, post-Katrina, a man killed and then cooked his girlfriend before killing himself, Walt was the only reporter to get a full copy of the suicide note. He called me in Philadelphia to relate his triumph.
"When you had a story rolling and you got a break and every phone call you made was like magic, when you've got something, man, you got something, it's like a zone. That's the reason I know I'm a newspaperman," Walt says. "It's like somebody invited you to this great circus."
He'll miss it. We'll miss him.
Natalie Pompilio (email@example.com), a former reporter for New Orleans' Times-Picayune and the Philadelphia Inquirer, is a writer based in Philadelphia.