Ken Walston was Google before there was Google.
Blessed with a keen intellect, a superior memory and knowledge about a breathtakingly wide array of subjects, Walston was the go-to guy in the Albuquerque Journal newsroom. He retired last September after 41 years as a copy editor and deputy news editor.
Walston, Kenny to his friends, died unexpectedly Sunday in a local hospital after a sudden stroke at his Albuquerque home. He was 67.
Longtime friend and newspaper colleague George Gibson said he began working at the Journal not long after Walston. Both were in their 20s and editing stories from the wire services and from the Journal reporting pool.
“For that kind of work it helped to know a little about a lot, which most of us did, as opposed to being specialists who knew a lot about a little,” Gibson said. “In his case, he knew more than most people about practically everything, thanks to being a prodigious reader with a first-rate memory. He was Google decades before we even knew what Google was.”
Gibson said his friend was equally passionate about Scotch, British Invasion rock bands, cars of all types, and great literature. “What do you say about a guy who could brew you a pale ale and then build the chair you’d sit in to drink it? How do you characterize a person who could change your brake pads as well as your mind on certain political issues? What can you say except, ‘So long, and you’ll be missed but not forgotten.’”
News of Walston’s passing swept through the Journal newsroom “taking our breath away and leaving many aching hearts,” said Journal editor Karen Moses.
Her association with Walston began at the University of New Mexico, “when I transferred as a junior with no journalism background,” she said. “Ken talked me into joining the Daily Lobo, which sparked my love of newspapers, and then convinced me to intern at the Journal. I returned to the Journal four years later to find Ken a key and respected member of the newsroom. That continued until he retired last fall.”
Kenneth Ray Walston Jr. was born in Champaign, Ill., to a family that included three siblings, a petroleum engineer father and a homemaker mother. He went to high school in Randolph, N.J., and later attended UNM, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in English and journalism. He did his UNM journalism internship at the Albuquerque Journal and after graduating worked for a short time as a copy editor at the Herald News in Woodland Park, N.J., before returning to New Mexico and taking a full-time job at the Journal.
As the Journal’s news editor, Walston was the writer behind the newspaper’s front page corner “Good Morning” greeting that ran from the 1930s and ended with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “It was not one of his favorite tasks, trying to be pithy but not too controversial,” said Donn Friedman, assistant managing editor for technology, who worked with Walston for more than 30 years.
One of his more memorable aphorisms “seems to fit his legacy,” Friedman said: “‘All of a sudden, New Mexico’s pesky spring winds hardly seem worth complaining about.’”
Although Walston daily worked behind the scenes in the hub of the newsroom operation, he was well known to Journal readers for his automotive column, which regularly ran on Saturdays. Newsroom employees were often heard asking, “Hey, Kenny, what are you test driving this week,” as gleaming new vehicles — everything from quaint subcompacts to ostentatious luxury cars — suddenly appeared in the Journal employee parking lot.
“A dinner conversation with Ken could start out on the relative merits of the new Mercedes-Benz engine, move effortlessly through the best rock guitarists, and then end with a discussion of Winston Churchill’s days out of power in the early 1930s,” said longtime friend and Journal investigative reporter Mike Gallagher.
Gallagher met Walston when they attended UNM. They both worked on the Daily Lobo together, both started internships at the Journal about the same time, and both served as best man at each other’s weddings in 1977.
Walston built furniture, trained dogs, played guitar and knew his wines, Gallagher said. “He had an encyclopedic memory of history, geography, art and rock ‘n’ roll, but he could also recall useless stuff like Monty Python routines — verbatim.” He was quite simply “one of the smartest people in the newsroom.”
Walston’s wife of 41 years, Koren Walston, called her husband a “walking encyclopedia.”
“If someone had a question about something, I’d say, ‘Ken will know,’ and he always did,” and he always kept his mind sharp by reading or staying busy with some activity or project. “He was great outside and had a green thumb — thank goodness one of us did. He just really enjoyed his garden and plants and his hummingbirds, and he loved his friends.”
And of course, he loved cars. “He knew every make, model and year,” she said. “Whenever we were going up to the Northeast Heights he’d religiously drive up Lomas. For years, it was Lomas, Lomas, Lomas, and I’d think to myself, ‘Can’t we take a different route.’ He’d say Lomas is good because there are fewer stop lights, but I knew how much pleasure he got from seeing all those new cars on the lots between Louisiana and Wyoming.”
The couple were both enjoying retirement and had plans to travel. “He was so excited and we were so content and just having the time of our lives,” she said. “We were going to travel to Paris but were thinking about canceling and going to Greece instead to see where my grandmother was born, and on the way back we’d visit Italy to see Pompeii.
“There is so much we wanted to do. My heart is just shattered,” she said. “He was the finest man I ever knew and I just can’t imagine what the world will be like without him.”
Walston is survived by his father, Kenneth Ray Walston Sr., of Albuquerque; brothers, John Walston of Albuquerque and Brad Walston of Colima, Mexico; sister, Angela Danessi, of Denver; two nephews and one niece.
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