File photo Wallie Funk appears at a ceremony in Oak Harbor several years ago to acknowledge his gift of a sculpture to the city. The former newspaper man died Aug. 12.

Whidbey loses iconic, respected community newspaperman

One of the great community newspapermen died Aug. 12 in his hometown of Anacortes.

Wallie Funk was 95 years old.

As journalist, photographer and publisher, Funk documented the lives of countless people in the pages of the Whidbey News-Times and the Anacortes American.

As a man known for his compassion, Funk influenced the lives of many others and worked tirelessly to make the community a better place.

“He was a man of commitment and a man of stature,” said his longtime friend and former Oak Harbor mayor, Al Koetje. “He certainly was a leader in our community.”

Funk did so much in his life — from traveling to China on a trade mission to photographing the Beatles — that describing it is a daunting task. Perhaps his most famous accomplishment was photographing the orca round-up in Penn Cove in 1970, capturing images that were seen around the world and helped turn the tide against the practice.

Funk’s newspaper career began in 1950 when he and business partner John Webber purchased Funk’s hometown newspaper, the Anacortes American. According to Funk’s son, Mark Funk, things didn’t exactly go as planned and the partners ended up selling the newspaper in 1964.

Funk and Webber set their sites on Whidbey Island, where the Whidbey News-Times and South Whidbey Record were for sale. Wallie Funk explained in an interview with the News-Times a few years ago that the owners, A. Glenn and Phyllis Smith, would only sell the newspapers to them because they had “a passion for community journalism.”

“Oak Harbor really was a fresh start for dad,” Mark Funk said. “His journalism skills were in full flower there.”

As editor, Funk dove into the job with his characteristic enthusiasm and energy.

He was omnipresent in the community, almost always with his camera. He filled the broadsheet pages of the newspaper with photos: not just politicians and criminals, but children eating ice cream and high school baseball players swinging away.

“Nobody was too small to get their photo in the Whidbey News-Times,” Mark Funk said, adding that he still hears from former classmates who say that getting their photo in the paper as children had been important to them.

Funk, who had the gift for gab, had one characteristic that many reporters seem to share — trouble with deadlines. Mark Funk recalls how his father would be pounding out copy on his Underwood typewriter at home and people from the newspaper would stop by to retrieve it. They referred to these trips as the “pajama run” because Funk would inevitably be in his PJs.

Fred Obee, the executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, said Funk gave him his first newspaper job in the mid-1980s. He also remembers Funk’s style.

“To be truthful, he made me a little crazy sometimes,” Obee said, “but when you worked with Wallie you just had to hold on tight and hope that the rocket would hold together.”

Nonetheless, Funk guided the newspaper with a sense of fairness and an enduring curiosity about the world.

“People say he was a unique character, but that doesn’t go far enough,” Obee said. “He was deeply compassionate, but tough when he needed to be. He wouldn’t be corralled or controlled.”

Former banker Barney Beeksma said Funk’s newspaper was responsible for putting Oak Harbor “on the map.” Yet Funk wasn’t adverse to occasionally covering things beyond the island. He took photos of the Beatles and later talked his way into a Rolling Stones concert, his son said. He took photos of four different presidents and even the queen of England.

Funk was a mentor to many, including people who went on to noteworthy careers in journalism. One former reporter, Eric Nalder, won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism.

Three newspaper publishers in the region once worked for Funk. That includes Keven Graves, current News-Times publisher.

“Wallie was a great journalist and a true mentor in my career, starting when I was on the Anacortes High School newspaper,” Graves said. “He hired me as a reporter out of college, and I learned about community journalism from Wallie.”

Jim Larsen, former Record editor, remembers Funk for his boundless energy, his generosity and his integrity as a newspaper man. Funk didn’t interfere with the The Record even when it endorsed candidates he didn’t like.

“I don’t know of any other newspaper owner who would let his editor go against him in an important political race,” Larsen said. “He really believed that each newspaper should be independently operated.”

Funk also advocated for the community. He was instrumental in getting the Whidbey Playhouse built. He served as president of the Navy League and was responsible for bringing the Oak Harbor chapter to national prominence, his son said. He supported museums, schools and countless nonprofit groups.

Beeksma said he got to know Funk because the newspaper man came into the bank so often, looking for help with a cause.

“His legacy is well established,” Graves said, “and his contributions to this community are still seen and felt to this day.”

Funk and Webber sold the newspapers to Sound Publishing in 1989. Funk hardly slowed down in retirement, turning his attention to philanthropy and history. Three years ago he donated a sculpture to Oak Harbor in honor of retired Oak Harbor High School English teachers.

Funk famously donated tens of thousands of photographs to museums and received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for archiving; his photos have been part of several art exhibits, including one at Western Washington University called “When Local Becomes National: The Legacy and Impact of Pacific Northwest Photojournalist Wallie V. Funk.”

A couple of years ago, he published a book entitled “Pictures of the Past” about the history of Anacortes.

Funk was well loved and respected. The University of Washington elected him into the Department of Communications Alumni Hall of Fame seven years ago. He thought he had been a couple of credits short of graduating, but the school discovered that he had graduated 62 years prior and awarded him a diploma, according to the Seattle Times.

Washington Newspaper Publishers Association named the organization’s Olympia News Bureau internship in his honor. His portrait hangs in the Island County Museum. He earned the Anacortes Patron of the Arts Award for his efforts helping to found the Anacortes Arts Festival.

“He was brilliant and funny, outrageous and tender,” Obee said. “If he was your friend, you had a friend for life. I miss him already.”

A celebration of Funk’s life, followed by a reception, will be at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23 at the First Baptist Church, 2717 J Ave., Anacortes.

 

File photo Wallie Funk appears at a ceremony in Oak Harbor several years ago to acknowledge his gift of a sculpture to the city. The former newspaper man died Aug. 12.