The current criticism that the Columbia City Council’s process for selecting the next city manager should be more public and transparent got me thinking: What would the late Columbia Daily Tribune publisher and opinion writer Hank Waters have thought and written?
I don’t know of any single individual who had the historical memory, took the time to educate himself about an issue and expressed it regularly in colorful writing for public consumption more than Hank did.
Henry J. “Hank” Waters died in August 2020 at the age of 90 after serving at the family-owned Tribune since 1948. He grew up on Park Hill Avenue, attended the now defunct University Laboratory School from kindergarten through high school, graduating in 1947. He left Columbia to attend Washington and Lee University but spent almost all his life in Columbia.
In 1966, at age 36, he succeeded his father, H.J. “Jack” Waters Jr., as Tribune publisher and immediately took on the task of writing the daily editorial, a practice he continued while in retirement, eventually authoring more than 18,000 of them.
Last year, he and his wife, Vicki Russell, donated their 207-acre Turkey Creek homestead to the Missouri Department of Conservation, part of which will be used by Columbia Public Schools as a nature school.
I only knew the “public” Hank; I never saw him with any of the various causes he championed and contributed toward. To the best of my memory, I talked with him three times in his office and about an equal number of brief bump-into conversations. The first time I met him was in about 1990 when former City Council member and professor Rex Campbell and I talked with him about our vision for making Mizzou a more active information resource for state policymaking.
I remember I practiced the line, “Nice to meet you. I agree with you more than I think I should.” He laughed and said he’d heard that sentiment before.
The second time I met with Hank was in fall 2000 as a member of a statewide effort to reform campaign finance, which included a state senator and several veteran political activists. Hank was inquisitive, probably skeptical, thoughtful, shared his views and, most memorable, listened.
The third time I met him was in 2001 when I ran for the Columbia School Board. He interviewed all five candidates early on in the campaign process. I remember talking with my fellow candidates about meeting with him, questions he asked, and how long we talked. Over the years, I think this might have been the most important function he played in Columbia’s political process — he often pushed candidates to be more substantive and better prepared for the dozens of election forums that candidates were expected to attend.
My views on Hank are reinforced by Michael Davis, who wrote an MA thesis in journalism in 2013. Davis surveyed 19 self-identified readers of “Hank’s Views” in the Tribune and found that “the majority of respondents said that Waters’ editorials are fair and that he does a good job of giving the other side of any issue enough space and discussion. They described him as “intelligent,” “well informed,” “a good person,” “folksy, curmudgeonly, warm, kind, and fair.”
Davis found that some readers were concerned with potential conflicts of interest since Hank was so well integrated in Columbia’s business networks.
The days of Hank Waters are behind us. I welcome more diverse and varied voices, but I recognize the information vacuum that has been created by generational change, information technology and the decline of locally owned media. From my limited perspective, the only person who comes near to filling Hank’s role of an owl looking over the vast local terrain is David Lile on KFRU radio.
We are left with few local newspaper reporters, a few vocal, local activists bringing attention to their particular causes without a broad community view, and local television news that prefers live shots of closed government buildings at 10 p.m. rather than in-depth reporting about local government.
My idealized Hank would have realized in about August that we had heard nothing about hiring a new city manager, after John Glascock announced his retirement in June. I imagine Hank would have called Glascock, the mayor, a few council members and inquired what was going on.
He would have said, “I’ll check back in a few weeks.” About Halloween, Hank would have called and asked, “When can we expect a public announcement?” He might have heard, “Oh ... we are just working on one and will have it out tomorrow.” Within a few days, Hank would have written another “Hank’s View” and praised city leaders for keeping the public informed. Well, that’s how it would have worked in my imagination.
The problem now is that no one has the historical memory, the legitimacy, the time or the resources to fill that role. In explaining that the Tribune would discontinue Hank’s practice of endorsing candidates, the new editor said, “The advent of nearly universal internet access means readers have the means to do their own research. And the country is so polarized politically that many endorsements are more divisive than motivating.”
The editor expresses a common perspective, but Hank would probably disagree. Being able to surf the web is not the same as remembering how previous city manager searches were conducted and how they turned out.
Finally, it is more likely that intertwining news coverage with opinions rather than signed opinions by long-standing voices of reason is a larger cause of America’s political polarization.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.