The Elbert Files: Shotty's remarkable career
Friday, August 29, 2014 6:00 AM
Walt Shotwell, who died earlier this month at the age of 93, was an irreplaceable, uniquely Des Moines newsman.
Although never as well-known as his Des Moines Register contemporaries George Mills and James Flansburg or anchormen Russ Van Dyke and Paul Rhoades at KRNT radio, where Shotwell also worked, he had an asset none could match.
Shotty, which is what everyone called him, grew up on the west side of Des Moines during the Great Depression and delivered newspapers on Foster Drive to many of the city’s leading families. Later in life, he told stories – never naming names – about supposedly wealthy businessmen who sent their maids or butlers out to explain that they didn’t have the 25 cents Shotty needed to collect for that week’s newspapers.
Walt grew up knowing stuff – people, places, family secrets – that no amount of investigative reporting and interviewing could replicate.
His own family was among the well-to-do until a huge drop in the price of eggs in 1931 forced his father, a commodities speculator, to take delivery of a quarter million dollars worth of eggs in transit. Roy Shotwell couldn’t afford ice to keep the eggs cool or the freight bill to move them forward. The rail cars containing Roy’s eggs were shunted onto sidings, and the family fortune quickly rotted away.
When Shotty was 15, a young radio broadcaster by the name of Ronald Reagan bought Walt his first beer outside the old Moonlight Inn at 73rd Street and University Avenue.
As a newsman, Shotty had a remarkable memory and was a stickler for facts.
In 2002, long after he’d retired, he dropped by my desk at the Register one day to point out a mistake in a story about the sale of the Val Air Ballroom. The story said Guy Lombardo had been the opening act when the Val Air opened in December 1939.
That’s wrong, Shotty said. It opened June 6, 1939. Admission was 85 cents and the opening act was Ted Lewis, whose big hit was “Me and My Shadow.”
Actually, he added, the first band to play the Val Air was a local group headed by Shotty’s high school pal Al Rockwell, who performed on June 5, one day before the formal opening.
During World War II, Shotty was a cargo pilot, flying 486 cargo missions in India and Burma. His war recollections were full of irony worthy of “Catch-22,” the 1960s anti-war novel.
After the war, he worked as a newspaper reporter, radio broadcaster, advertising executive and, finally, a newspaper columnist.
One of his advertising clients was the Iowa Republican Party, where he helped craft the early career of Gov. Robert Ray.
Shotty told the story of Ray and his mentor, attorney Leo Oxberger, during the 1950s when they set out to rebuild what was then a scandal-decimated Polk County Republican Party. They did it by joining every service club and do-good organization in town. Between them, they were members of 16 groups.
A decade later, Shotty helped craft much of the strategy that Ray used to win his initial race for governor in 1968. Walt remained a trusted adviser and tennis partner of the governor for many years.
Shotty returned to the newspaper in the late 1970s, writing insightful columns for the Des Moines Tribune and later the Register.
After retiring in 1991, Shotty wrote a series of books, including biographies of businessmen Bill Knapp and Ray Townsend.
He also wrote an autobiography called “The Rainbows Often Wane,” which chronicled his own story, including two severe attacks of depression for which he was hospitalized.
But mostly “Rainbows” provides unparalleled views of Des Moines society, business and politics during a heady time long before most of us were here.
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