- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 30, 2003

For 21 years, Colin Walters did precisely what he aspired to do from the time when he was a young man, to write. His road was long and laborious: from the village of Weston-super-Mare in Somerset in southwest England, to nearly a decade as a British soldier; from an emigrant to the United States with his young family and years of bureaucratic heavy-lifting.

He was a budget and public-policy analyst for various “War on Poverty” agencies and the D.C. government, and an urban studies wonk with the Center for Metropolitan Studies. During these years, Colin read constantly and widely. He was, he said with a mixture of pride and wistfulness, an autodidact. The trouble with having to educate himself, he noted, was that he invariably wasted time plowing ahead as his own teacher.

As the editor of the books pages of The Washington Times from its founding in 1982 until his death last Monday, Colin recalled that after finishing what amounted to high school in Great Britain, and without resources for higher education, he found an opportunity as a beginning reporter at a regional newspaper. But the job required a subsidy from his family — newspapers there, as here in the 1950s, paid hilariously low wages. The family did not have the money to underwrite a newspaper career.

So at the age of 17, the minimum age for enlistment, he presented himself early one morning at the local recruiting sergeant’s quarters. That representative of Her Majesty’s Government appeared at the door in trousers but no shirt, suspenders dangling. “Go have a cup of tea, lad, and come back in half an hour,” the sergeant said. Colin returned, to take the queen’s shilling. Thus began what he called his “higher education.”

Colin chose the Royal Army Pay Corps, because, he said, it paid a few shillings more than other branches. Good with figures and thoroughly conscientious, Colin became a non-commissioned officer more rapidly than the norm and finished his nine years in uniform as a sergeant. He further demonstrated martial ability as a competitive marksman.

In 1956, he was loaded aboard a troop ship as part of the army contingent for the doomed British venture to reclaim the Suez Canal from Gamal Abdel Nasser. Later, he was posted to the British Embassy in Washington. It was good duty, working in civilian clothes and living the life of a civilian. More than that, Colin would recall, his exposure to America quickly persuaded him that this was the society in which to hew a future.

When Colin was sent back to Great Britain and his enlistment ended, he waited the legally required six months and applied for a visa to the United States. His military specialty enabled him to fill a variety of jobs in Washington in the federal government’s War on Poverty and successor agencies. He became in turn a researcher-writer and administrator at the Washington Center for Metropolitan Studies (now the Greater Washington Research Center, a pioneer institution in urban-studies think tanks). He then signed on as an assistant city administrator for financial management during Marion Barry’s first term as mayor of the District of Columbia, a Sisyphean stint that he did not recall with fondness.

Colin learned the rules of the government game but government was not his choice of playing field. He had been teaching himself to write in these years and one of his submissions was a book review, sent to the late Bob Evett, books editor of The Washington Star. With a generosity not always encountered in newsrooms, Mr. Evett helped Colin shape his review, and it eventually became his first published article. There were other reviews and it was evident that he had both desire and ability.

Book reviewing, however, is not an express train to success in journalism. It would be nearly a decade before an opportunity of true calling found Colin. When The Washington Times was founded in 1982, a number of staffers and editors of the recently shuttered Star joined the new paper — notably, for Colin’s future, the late Anne Crutcher, the first editor of the editorial page of the new newspaper. She knew him through his free-lance work for The Star and invited him to be the new paper’s Books Editor. He could not assent quickly enough, he said.

Initially, Colin wrote one or sometimes two book reviews a week, which at the time appeared on the page opposite the editorial page, or “op-ed”. He was a one-man literary band. As the paper grew, an assistant books editor was added and the section eventually reached its current three pages each Sunday.

The vital task to achieve a vibrant, interesting and authoritative book-review section — as crucial as the political reporting to projecting authority and influence in the nation’s capital — was to cultivate capable reviewers on a variety of topics and specialities, and to encourage younger reviewers. Not forgetting the help he had received as a young writer, Colin patiently worked with those of limited experience, tutoring them in organizing a literary review and essay, and, especially, encouraging them to keep at it.

Unfailingly civil with colleagues, Colin nevertheless demanded adherence to standards of craft and intellectual integrity, and the old sergeant’s temper could flare when standards were violated.

“In sharing two decades with Colin in the weekly meetings of the book committee where decisions were reached on which books to send out for review and to whom, his seriousness about literary journalism (a phrase that would have evoked an ironic grin from him) was always evident,” says Woody West, associate editor of The Times. “That seriousness was always balanced by Colin’s sense of the absurd, his wry sense of humor and extensive store of anecdotes about books and authors.”

“The happiest day of the week in the book section was the one when the next issue was being planned,” said Carol Herman, assistant books editor. “Colin would map out a page, always with a green felt marker, always using a ruler. He would consult a running list of available reviews, check a list for copy that was expected and create a new list of reviewers who needed to be ‘progressed,’ his polite way of saying pushed. He loved the books and the reviewers too, and it was a feast of a time that we both enjoyed, my privilege for these last four years.

“One day, before he took ill, he grew pensive. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘someday this is all going to end.’ It was as if he could not believe that an enterprise so perfect might.”

George Garrett, novelist, essayist and professor of English at the University of Virginia, noted that Colin’s “independence of judgment, freedom from literary fashions and trends” and his good taste were reflected in the book pages over which he presided. Mr. Garrett, who both reviewed for The Times and was reviewed in its pages, was “pleased to have said so in print” in the 1990s, when he wrote on “Book Reviewing and the Literary Scene” for the Yearbook of the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

“Colin Walters has been so intimately a part of the paper’s history that it is difficult to think of The Times without him,” says Wesley Pruden, editor in chief of The Times. “Some of my warmest memories are of long evenings after a splendid supper, our breaking out a bottle of calvados, and talking about whatever interested him, which was everything. Colin knew something, and usually a lot, about everything. He always took the story and not himself seriously, and his books pages reflected that dedication. A newspaper can’t be any good without a tough old boot of a sergeant or two, and few newspapers, very few, are fortunate enough to have a Colin Walters. God rest his soul.”

A memorial service for Colin Walters will be held at the National Press Club on Friday, September 5 at 3 p.m.

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