Walter Frank Whitehead

August 16, 1931 ~ October 16, 2023 (age 92) 92 Years Old

Walter Whitehead Obituary

Walter F. Whitehead 92, a consummate journalist and a beloved son, brother, uncle, cousin and
friend, died Monday, Oct. 16, in Pendleton, Oregon.
The Cheyenne, Wyoming, native, born on Aug. 16, 1931, wrote a memoir of his 63 years in the
news trade in 2012, peppering his prose with wry humor and illuminating insights. Consider this
line about his being born on a Sunday: “My mother thought the day of the week might be a good
omen and that I might grow up to be a preacher. Her hopes in that regard were dashed. I grew
up to be an impious journalist.”
His career included stints at seven newspapers and 11 years with United Press International,
the latter including postings as the Saigon bureau manager during the Vietnam War and as a
reporter and editor in New York and Washington, D.C. Events he covered included protests after
the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the beginning stages of the Watergate
His first journalism job was at age 17 as a sports reporter for the Wyoming Eagle. During two
years there, he also covered county government and the police beat. By the fall of 1950, he had
saved enough to enroll at the University of Wyoming.
Walt was drafted by the Army during the Korean War and served two years, mostly in France.
He returned to college in 1954 and graduated in 1956. After two years covering the police beat
in Lawton, Oklahoma, he returned to Wyoming and worked as the press officer in a U.S. Senate
campaign. At one event, Walt got to meet former president Harry Truman. “He was a little,
pot-bellied old man but he still radiated an almost electric authority,” Walt recalled.
After newspaper jobs in Boise, Idaho, and Spokane, Washington, and another brief detour as a
U.S. Senate campaign aide, Walt signed on with UPI in Boise. In his memoir, Walt wrote that
UPI “was known for its low pay and a work regimen so demanding the agency was sometimes
referred to as the Marine Corps of the news trade.”
From the Boise bureau, Walt several years later moved to Sacramento and UPI’s California
state capitol team. He then requested assignment to Vietnam, the war at its apex by then. After
a stint at UPI’s New York headquarters newsroom, he ran the Saigon bureau for 18 months. His
memoir chronicled the challenges of covering the chaotic war, including rocket attacks on the
city and the dangers faced by the journalists in the field.
After Vietnam, Walt worked as the overnight editor in the Washington, D.C. bureau. He
developed a close working relationship with legendary UPI White House correspondent Helen
Thomas, who supplied birddog reporting that was turned into eye-catching prose by Walt and
other desk editors. Walt said Helen rewarded him by taking him to the White House
correspondents dinner.
Walt tired of urban living and moved back to the West, working for a time as the copy desk chief
of the Casper Star Tribune. In the late 1970s, while back in Boise, he mentored a nephew, Mark
Shenefelt, who was inspired by Walt’s career to get into journalism as well. Mark sponged up
Walt’s insights on journalism, politics and life and ended up with a 45-year journalism career
himself, ever grateful for Walt’s love and support.
Walt joined the East Oregonian newspaper in Pendleton in 1982 and worked as an editor there
for 13 years. He kept working part-time after retirement, and as of the writing of his memoir, he
had been doing journalism for 63 years.
Walt loved the Pendleton community, a farming and ranching center, and he enjoyed frequent
camping trips into the nearby Blue Mountains.
Walt said he was reluctant to write a memoir but was encouraged to do so by a cousin, Tom
Whitehead, who said he wondered how a guy born in Wyoming made it to the big-time, working
as a war correspondent and in New York and Washington. But he changed his perspective
when he read Tom’ memoir about his ministerial career and was struck by how interesting it
“I am not an elitist,” Walt said in his memoir. “I grew up hard scrabble in Wyoming and attended
a cow college. But a journalist who works in the trade as long as I have experiences interesting
After retirement, Walt said he was a man of small ambition who hoped to stay ambulatory
enough to take a few more walks in the woods.
“I was born in one rodeo town and will likely die in another,” he wrote. “There’s irony there for I
view rodeos about like Spiro T.Agnew viewed slums when he said, ‘If you’ve seen one slum
you’ve seen them all.’”
Walt was preceded in death by his parents and four siblings. He is survived by a sister, Irma
Dewey, of Cottonwood, Arizona, a bunch of loyal and admiring nieces and nephews, and some
of the many friends he made over the years. Walt was especially grateful in his final years for
the assistance of a wonderful friend, Robbie Young. She arranged all his healthcare, his move
to assisted living, taking care of his house, and other financial things for him when he could not.
Burns Mortuary handled cremation and family members will spread his ashes in the Oregon

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