Groundbreaking journalist Walter Mears dies

MIDDLEBURY — Walter R. Mears, the legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning political journalist who died at 87 on March 3, 2022, of cancer at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C., began his reporting career at Middlebury College for the Associated Press and then became the first person to open the AP Bureau in Vermont.

In the fall of 1956, the newly minted Middlebury graduate went to work for the AP in Boston. His previous work for the AP had been as a stringer while he was the editor of the Middlebury Campus, the student newspaper.

It didn’t take long for the AP brass to decide that Mears, at age 21, be sent to Montpelier as Correspondent, the name for the AP person in charge of an AP state bureau.

As Mears wrote in his book, “Deadlines Past,” he was the youngest and “probably the most nervous staffer” ever appointed to run a state bureau.

Mears was then the only AP reporter assigned to Vermont. His job was to cover the state for the seven Vermont newspapers taking AP service. He held the job from 1956 to 1960 when he was sent back to Boston and was soon covering the 1960 presidential campaign.

Before he retired, Mears had covered every presidential campaign from 1960 through 2000,  He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1977 after covering the race between President Gerald R. Ford and former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.  Carter won, ousting the sitting President.

Mears credits his work in Vermont as his “journalism school.” The four years Mears spent in Vermont were formative and enjoyable. “I never enjoyed a job more than Montpelier. It was a debut on a small stage.”

Mears wrote in his memoir that his Vermont job was “fun covering a citizen legislature with a representative from every hamlet in the state. There were 276 members in the House (now 150) including one elected by his townspeople because otherwise he would have been eligible for welfare and that would have ruined their record for paying none.”

got to know Mears through Senator George Aiken and saw him during my six years in Washington working in Aiken’s office.  After Aiken retired in 1975, I returned to Vermont and to journalism. It was in 1976 when I saw Mears at his best.

Mears’ office was on the third floor of the Statehouse under the Golden Dome known as the “Crows Nest,” where all the statehouse reporters were then housed. (Long ago, by the late ’60s, the reporters, including me, were kicked out of the space so that an air conditioning system could be installed for the building.)

At the time before instant social media, the AP — and its competitor the UPI — were the closest thing to news as it happened.

I had been assigned to cover the 1976 Republican Convention in Kansas City  when I was re-acquainted with Mears. I would witness him in the media press room pounding out in record speed a quick lead (the opening lines for a story that would distill its importance) for the AP.

Mears gained legendary status as a political reporter because he could produce a story as fast as he could type. 

Mears’ enduring reputation as a legend came from the description of him in the “Boys on the Bus,” a book in 1973 written by reporter Timothy Crouse about the 1972 presidential campaign.

As Crouse would write, other reporters would follow Walter’s lead as Mears wrote so fast that the other print reporters would often shout out to him for the “Lead, Walter, what’s our Lead?”

Mears maintained a lifelong interest about events in Vermont. He kept up his connections with Middlebury College and received an honorary Doctor of Letters from that institution in 1977, served on its Board of Trustees from 1980 to 1984 and, in 2011, was a recipient of its Alumni Award.

Cleary, the eight years in Vermont – four at Middlebury College and four at the AP Montpelier – were the foundation stones for Mears and his legendary journalism career.

Stephen C. Terry lives in Middlebury and was a friend of Walter R. Mears.

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