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Walter Backstrom, R.I.P.

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on May 21, 2012 at 5:00 am with 5 Comments »
May 21, 2012 8:52 am
Walter Backstrom

When you’re dead, you never call and you never write. I should have noticed a few weeks back when Walter Backstrom stopped ringing me up to pitch an idea for a new column.

I found out in a roundabout way last week that he died April 22 in a homeless shelter, reportedly of a heart attack. People who follow our Monday guest columnists may recall that he was one of our regulars in 2009. He had an unusual perspective as a black, Christian conservative; his pieces were weighty, eloquent and moving.

Walter addressed the broadest of themes: morality, education, youth, civil rights, growing up black, illustrating them with personal experiences and observations. He brooded on the state of humanity, the nation, the schools, the family – all the big stuff.

The homeless shelter is the part that bothers me.

I had many conversations with Walter and always came away with a disquieting feeling that he was living on the edge, not really making a go of it. Like many black men who’d grown up in the mid-20th century (he was 60 when he died), he guarded his dignity and stoically accepted the fact that there can be more downs than ups in life. Walter never complained of his own circumstances, at least to me.

Then, last January, he called to tell me he was homeless; I was shocked. He thought it would only be for a week or two. He wanted to write about the experience. Here’s the piece we published.

A few weeks later, he called to talk about a sequel. He was still in the shelter, and I had sinking feeling that things had gone seriously awry. The column never materialized. Nothing against homeless shelters, but no one should ever have to die in one.

Walter’s ambition was to become a professional writer. He didn’t quite get there, but being a writer is far less important than being a good and caring man. He nailed that one a long, long time ago.

Leave a comment Comments → 5
  1. ThomasSkidmore says:

    30-plus years ago I worked with Walt in Portland. He was a man never at terms with himself. He was a charmer who unfortunately had a way of doing those little things that after a time drive you away and keep your conversations to a friendly arms length “Hi – how ya doing?” until the next time.

    There is a story of race in the U.S. here and of a man raised in a upper middle class home with a very successful and well respected father. Many times Walt and I talked while going to a meeting or after work in the office. Walt did not want to be black (he told me this) and I am sure this was his life long internal battle.

    He ran as a Democrat for the Oregon Legislature in the early 1980’s and attempted to use his race as a stepping stone. When that did not work as a Democrat and because of his other life struggles I would imagine he moved to the Republicans where he was “unique” and to a religious viewpoint he could use as a crutch and support.

    This is a sad story far beyond anything I could write. This was a man with great possibilities in life when I worked with him. Never would I have imagined he would end his life in a homeless shelter. I enjoyed my time with Walt and many of us will have “Walter K. Backstrom” stories to carry with us.

    Thanks for the note. I know several people who worked with him who will want to know about his death. I assume he was buried in California where his family is.

  2. Pecksbadboy says:

    Just shows Christian Conservatives care nothing about their own and convince them to vote for candidates who care nothing for them but lip service.

    Romney says there are more than enough saftey nets is place already

  3. Jupiter25 says:

    I sent an email to Mr. Blackstrom in response to an article he had published (I think it was the Puyallup Herald). He replied with a very nice, articulate response that I enjoyed reading. Saddened to hear of his passing, especially given the circumstances. Thank you, Patrick, for your article. As far as Pecksbadboy, what an idiotic statement. This Christian conservative (and probably many others) donates to Tacoma Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, and other organizations that help the less fortunate. I recently made bag lunches with other Christians, and we took them out to those who were obviously living in abject poverty. Pecksbadboy, what have you done lately to help others? Oh that’s right, you want the gobvernment to do it all.

  4. SafewayOrangeSoda says:

    If there were any justice in this world, the intelligent, decent Walter Backstrom would be financially strong and healthy, writing a permanent column for the paper, while Leonard Pitts and his hate spewing would have been the one to wither away in a shelter somewhere.

    But justice in this world does not exist.

  5. Persephonie says:

    Cowards die many times before their deaths.
    The valiant never taste of death but once.
    William Shakespeare,
    Julius Caesar.

    RIP Beloved~

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