You are reading this today because of the impact Wallie Funk had on my life 50 years ago.
Wallie, longtime publisher of the Whidbey News-Times, died Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, at the age of 95.
It is because of Wallie, with a helping hand from his wife Mary Ann, that I became a writer.
As I was growing up, my family became acquainted with the Funks because Wallie covered Oak Harbor High School sports and my father was a coach and athletic director at the school. I grew up reading about the exploits of the Wildcats through Wallie’s prose, excited and inspired with his witty style.
Of course, we would have gotten to know the Funks regardless; everyone in Oak Harbor knew Wallie.
When I was a sophomore in high school, the Funks asked me to “house sit” when they were going to be out for the evening. Their sons, Mark and Carl, were in junior high and really didn’t need a babysitter, but I think the elder Funks were concerned about what the rambunctious pair might do to their home while they were away. I refereed their fights (let’s call them wrestling matches) and stood between the battling brothers and the fine china.
I was proud that the Funks deemed me responsible enough to be responsible for their children. This is when I began to get to know Wallie at a deeper level.
I took my first journalism class from Trudy Sundberg, a remarkable teacher and writer, while in junior high. Wallie encouraged me to continue that path in high school, and I eventually became editor of the school newspaper, the Breeze. Mary Ann was my English teacher at the time and helped hone my writing skills.
Wallie also hired me to write some of the sports for the News-Times while I was still in high school. He gave me my first byline and my first taste of professional journalism.
When I graduated from the University of Washington, Wallie’s school, he asked me to come home and be his sports editor. Once again I was proud that he allowed me to take over something he did so well for so long.
I graduated from the University of Washington with degrees in journalism and education. Shortly after I started working at the paper, I was offered a teaching job in Oak Harbor. Because I had interest in both fields, I accepted the position.
Wallie was gracious enough to allow me to stay on as sports editor, and I worked both jobs for two years.
Once I began coaching, I had to stop writing for the News-Times. Wallie wasn’t happy but he was very understanding. He knew I idolized my father and wanted to follow his footsteps.
I taught English at Oak Harbor High School and coached baseball and basketball for 30 years. I chose English, in part, because of the influence Mary Ann had on my education.
I also remembered something about her teaching style that I appreciated as a student and wanted to emulate when I stood in front of my own class. When I was a bit squirrely as a student, she asked, not told, me to get back on task.
When I retired from teaching, I returned to the News-Times to write sports, 32 years after stepping down. Wallie had long since sold the newspaper and retired, but he was the first to call me to welcome me back to the profession.
He also gave me a three-ring binder stuffed with handwritten notes about different athletic events he covered throughout the years. It’s a remarkable treasure. It should be in a museum, but he gave it to me.
He chose me to watch his children. He chose me to mentor. He chose me to be his sports editor. He chose me to inherit an incredible keepsake.
It is hard to explain how proud I am that he trusted me. But most of all, I am proud to have known him.
Jim Waller is sports editor of the Whidbey News-Times.