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Journalist's words, acts of kindness fondly remembered

Journalist's words, acts of kindness fondly remembered

August 6th, 2019 by Joe Gamm in Local News

Bob Watson, at right, asks a question of Gov. Eric Greitens during a news conference in his Capitol office. March 2, 2017, was Associated Press Day at the Capitol during which members of the Missouri Press Association attended the afternoon question and answer session in the Governor's Office. Seated next to Watson are Jason Hancock, of the Kansas City Star, and Scott Lauck, of Missouri Lawyers Media.

Photo by Julie Smith /Fulton Sun.

The sudden death of Robert "Bob" Watson has left a void in our community.

But, it has also left us with a gift.

A gift of words.

A father and grandfather, just 68 years old, Bob died early Sunday morning after a brief illness.

And — for his written words and in those of others — he is most fondly remembered.

Bob was a stickler when it came to the written word, and he often would attribute his respect for language to his mother, who worked as a copy editor.

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One can be forgiven for forgetting that Robert William "Bob" Watson wasn't always a newspaper man. His journalism career started in radio and television.

Bob joined Bob Priddy's local radio news team as a Jefferson City government reporter in 1974, before it became Missourinet in 1975. He was young, talented and eager to create his own voice, Priddy said.

"This kid showed up, and I was impressed with him right away. He was a great professional and just a great person," Priddy said. "I respected him right off the bat."

However, Bob just didn't have a voice that worked on the radio broadcasts, and Priddy had to let him go.

"I'm sure that very badly disappointed him," Priddy said. "He stuck with it and found his niche at the newspaper."

That niche was still seven years away.

Bob, who was raised in St. Louis, landed on his feet after missing out on the radio job, taking a reporting job at KRCG.

He worked there and influenced other up-and-coming Jefferson City news personalities who have stood the test of time — Dick Preston, Kermit Miller, Rod Smith and Jim Riek.

"We think he was the only person in the market who worked radio, TV and newspaper," Preston said.

From 1982-89, he worked alongside Preston, who said the young reporter was always digging for information.

Even though he was an out-of-towner, he had knowledge of Jefferson City, he said. For example, when Preston and his wife bought a house and told Bob about it, Bob knew all about the house.

"I think he just drove around town and tried to find out what was going on. He remembered it all," Preston said. "I can't retain that information."

Bob was active in his church and oftentimes contributed to United Way campaigns, Preston said. The fledgling nonprofit would print a list of all its contributors back then, and he would be surprised to find that on a newsperson's salary Bob's name would be among them.

Preston, who celebrated 50 years at the television station last year, said Bob was there to congratulate him, which was typical.

Rod Smith admits he wasn't much of a news reporter in 1985 when he accepted his first job at KRCG, where Bob was already becoming a veteran.

"He really was one of the better teachers I ever had in news reporting," he said. "Bob was one of those guys who was patient, and kind and helpful in all that I did. Bob would help me shoot video and taught me how to edit. He taught me how to write."

He continued mentoring young reporters throughout his career.

And they enjoyed his sense of humor, Smith said. One winter, during a massive snowfall, Smith and another reporter drove past Bob's car and realized if they removed snow from half the car, they could make it look as if half the car were missing.

He didn't know who pranked him until a few days later, when Smith mentioned the car.

"Oh, it was you guys," Bob said.

Made for newspapers, Smith said, Bob eventually left for the Jefferson City News Tribune.

"I'll miss him — and all of Jefferson City will miss him — for the work he did," Preston said. "He was a great friend. He was definitely a character."

It's difficult to discuss Bob without mentioning his penchant for keeping things. As his children searched his desk Monday morning, seeking his personal items, they found things like a 2014 St. Louis Cardinals schedule, a 2013 map of Jefferson City, the tiara he wore when he dressed as a princess for a charitable event and a foam brick he threatened to strike himself in the head with if he made mistakes.

And legendary piles of papers, documents, pamphlets and business cards.

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"I have some sympathy for those of you who have to go through his desk," Priddy said. "I have more sympathy for those of you who have to go through his car."

It may seem funny on the outside, said Scott Charton, who is retired from the Associated Press. However, somehow, there was organization to the piles.

"If you ever saw his desk, piled with papers and recordings, you'd wonder how he did it," Charton said. "(Without much searching) he could lay his hands on history."

If needed, he could unlock some elusive fact within the stacks.

However, Bob rarely needed to delve into his "archives." About everything he needed was stowed away in his incredibly photographic memory.

He worked harder than anybody and began developing his encyclopedic knowledge of Central Missouri and state government.

Bob began his three-decade career with Central Missouri Newspapers on Jan. 23, 1989. He covered community and school news, the courts and high-profile criminal cases. For more than two decades, he focused on coverage of state and federal governments — including the death of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, the resignation of Gov. Eric Greitens and numerous presidential visits.

Bob's co-workers jokingly call him the "bulldog" for his determination to find out the truth. He quickly became a friend and mentor to many of those co-workers in the newsroom and other departments, and he earned it by typically being the first one to welcome new employees with enthusiasm, offering a hand if they need help in their respective beats. He could be in the middle of writing an in-depth story, but would stop what he was doing to answer a question and provide extensive background that could help his co-worker in writing their own story on the same deadline.

"The politicians, educators, community leaders and many others he covered knew that a story written by Bob Watson would be accurate, informative and well-read," Managing Editor Gary Castor said. "His straightforward nature built trust in many vital sources for the News Tribune."

Many reached out to the newspaper to offer words of comfort during the past two days.

He covered Lincoln University for more than 10 years, said Greg Gaffke, who has been a curator on the Lincoln Board since 2002. He said Bob earned the "Bulldog" moniker.

"Some people were afraid to say anything in front of Bob. But I never feared that, because Bob only printed what was true," Gaffke said. "If something smelled bad, Bob wasn't afraid to dig it out and write about it. That was a sign of good journalism."

Bob would also just as quickly write about the things people were doing right, he said.

He was a class act and gentleman, Gaffke said.

Among his numerous awards, Bob received recognition from the Missouri Bar Association this spring for his career covering Missouri courts. He is a three-time recipient of the organization's Excellence in Legal Journalism Award.

Central Missouri Newspapers recognized him last month with the W.E. Hussman Employee of the Year Award for 2018.

The awards come well-deserved for hard, difficult work.

He was never afraid to ask probing questions, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe said.

Kehoe has known Bob for about 25 years — beginning when Kehoe owned a car dealership.

The two men — on opposite sides of the reporter/politician divide — had respect for each other.

"Bob could ask you a question you really didn't anticipate," Kehoe said. "But he was fair. What ended up in print was always fair."

During legislative sessions, when he had time to spare, Bob would find his way to Kehoe's office, where they would "shoot the bull," Kehoe said.

He would always come prepared with facts. And knowing Kehoe's wife, Claudia, doesn't care for the public eye, if Bob didn't receive answers he expected, he would suggest he could call her and ask her the questions.

"No, Bob, don't call my wife," Kehoe said.

He was dedicated to his family, to the church and to his work," said Pastor Dave Henry, of First Presbyterian Church, where Bob had been a member since 1974.

The church, at 324 Madison St., will host a visitation for the newsman from 4-7 p.m. Thursday. The funeral is at 2:30 p.m. Friday at the church. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions are suggested to the church.

"I'll remember his dedication to the church," Henry said. "And his dedication to getting at the truth of things. It was very, very important to him that what he said and what he wrote was accurate and truthful."

It was also important to him to help other reporters meet their lofty goals.

As an example, Charton said that in 1991, as the United States was beginning Operation Desert Storm, the Associated Press headquarters in New York City assigned the Jefferson City Bureau to round up reactions from citizens. It was the first major military action since the Vietnam War. One of the AP reporters went to the streets, but it was night, and there were few people about.

"He ran into Bob, who was doing volunteer work, sweeping the sidewalk outside his church," Charton said.

Bob told the reporter the church choir was inside, rehearsing. Choir members agreed to become part of the story.

"The symmetry of the participants of a peaceful church choir in the heart of America commenting on the start of combat operation on the other side of the world ended up as a prominent part of the AP story," Charton said. "And it wouldn't have happened without Bob's help."

He was always there to give good, adult advice, said daughter Beth Patton, of New York. Shortly after completing college, she asked him a few questions.

Bob just seemed like he knew all the answers to life's difficult questions, like "Do I take this job? Or do I sign up for a 401(k)?" Patton said.

"Yes," was the answer to both. They both worked out, she said. She met her husband through the job.

Her brother, Drew Watson, of Jefferson City, said asking Bob was faster and easier than Google.

They got used to his eccentricities, such as keeping whom he voted for to himself, Watson said. Bob never wanted it to get out and damage his reputation of remaining unbiased.

Bob stayed connected with people who moved away years ago, his son said. He always tried to stay in touch.

Jefferson City will remember Bob for his writing, reporting and professionalism, Charton said. Or his generosity of spirit, charity and compassion. However, he had two great loves — his children, he said.

And even though she lived far away, her father's hugs always stayed with her, Patton said.

"I'm going to miss his hugs — he had the best hugs," Patton said. "And, I'm going to miss the $2 bills he gave us for our birthdays."