In Memory of William C. Bequette

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Bill Bequette influenced generation of journalists

Written by Tri-city editorial board. 04/25/2011


Bill Bequette died Sunday in his 93rd year. His is not a household name in the Tri-Cities. But it should be.

From his home perched on the bluff where Washington Street ends in south Kennewick, Bill watched the Tri-Cities grow and prosper.

But it was from his chair in the Tri-City Herald newsroom that for 37 years he wrote, edited and directed the news coverage of that growth and prosperity.

He was no "joiner" -- so you won't see his name on any club roster in the Tri-Cities. In fact, he discouraged his reporters from such associations, claiming it could compromise their objectivity.

He was straight as an arrow, honest as the day is long -- and abhorred such writing as this sentence.

He joined the Herald when it was one year old in October 1948, after fighting in the jungles of New Guinea and doing his apprenticeship with United Press in Portland and the East Oregonian in Pendleton (where he wrote the first "flying saucer" story, after interviewing a commercial pilot).

Bill was one of the few on the Herald's small staff who had any formal journalistic training.

As a Herald reporter he covered Hanford before the Freedom of Information Act, when the Atomic Energy Commission treated reporters as a pesky nuisance and was putting out such news releases as one that said oak bark might be an antidote for radiation damage.

But Bill's major contribution to the community was not in his reporting. It was in his mentoring of a couple of generations of reporters. As city editor and later managing editor he was relentless in his -- and his reporters' -- pursuit of accuracy, relevance and brevity. He would not tolerate slack or superficial reporting.

He turned the Herald's newsroom into a more professional operation: one bent on straight news reporting rather than local boosterism.

In the beginning, with only a handful of reporters and only a few on the news desk, he would supervise, assign and oversee reporters, edit their copy, lay out pages and get the paper out by noon. And, in the afternoon, he would write editorials and assemble the next day's editorial page.

He and his staff were workaholics. His pink-sheet assignments were reporters' nightmares. Reporters complained -- but later those assignments turned into stories that won journalism prizes. One of his protégés won a Pulitzer Prize at the Oregonian.

Bill helped reduce the work week for staffers from six days to five and a half, plus coverage of one-night meeting, and he convinced the publisher that women reporters should be paid on a basis of their ability and not their gender.

He established many of the newsroom's standards on such things as accepting gifts long before they were adopted by the rest of the industry.

While many others took much of the credit, it was Bill who wrote the editorials that convinced the political powers that the Columbia Basin farm project should be built and expanded; that forced an interstate that was going to bypass the Tri-Cities to be built through it; that Hanford had to be diversified, along with the economy of the Tri-Cities; that as the nuclear reactors were shut down the government owed the Tri-Cities a future.

It wasn't all "heavy" copy. Each spring Bill could be relied on to remind readers when to plant their peas. And in the summer he told them how to cook their corn. His editorials emphasized that, along with a sound economy, we needed parks, playgrounds and a river environment that made the Tri-Cities not only a place to make a living but also a great place to live.

Bill was a gruff, tight-lipped editor who intimidated rookies and veterans alike. Yet he had a softer side when his Montana background surfaced. He was a skier, a hiker, a camper and a man who, along with his wife, Neva, almost annually won the prize for the Best Rose in the Tri-City Rose Show.

Retirement in 1985 softened Bill into a white-haired, grandfatherly figure who wrote weekly columns. The 1998 death of his wife, Neva, who was head of the Mid-Columbia Library District, took the fire out of Bill's eyes and the spirit out of his soul. He battled the plagues of age and in recent years had to resort to a walker as his ramrod spine bent.

But his resentment of incomplete and lengthy stories, and editorials that ran too long, remained.

A man who was a real champion for Tri-City causes is probably up there somewhere today complaining that this writer has gone on far, far too long.

And he's probably arguing with the Man Upstairs that the Ten Commandments could have been written in seven.

And offering to do the rewrite.

Bill: You will be missed.


Former editor helped shape Herald

By Paula Horton, Herald staff writer

KENNEWICK -- A retired Herald editor credited with helping shape the newspaper during an almost four-decade career died at his Kennewick home Sunday.

William C. Bequette was 93.

Bequette joined the Herald as a reporter in 1948 when the paper was a year old. He retired Dec. 31, 1985, after working his way up the ranks, serving as city editor, editor and editorial writer.

"Bill was the little-known face behind the Herald. But in my 25-year working history with Bill, I knew him as the person who ruled the newsroom and molded it into what it is today," said Jack Briggs, a retired Herald publisher. "In the early '60s, he forced an end to local boosterism and instilled an ethic of honest reporting that continues today.

"He was gruff and tough, enforced tight writing and never recognized an eight-hour work day. He forced reporters to write stories they didn't want to write but eventually won them journalism prizes," Briggs continued. "He molded, not just the Tri-City Herald but the Tri-Cities with his forceful editorials that stressed not just economic stability and diversification but also quality of life.

"He will be sorely missed."

Bequette grew up during the Depression in Hardin, a small Eastern Montana town. He graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in Missoula and got his first reporting job with the United Press in Helena.

He volunteered for the Army during World War II and served in the infantry in the South Pacific. He earned a Bronze Star for bravery and the Purple Heart.

When the war ended, Bequette returned to the UP in Helena, then moved to the UP's bureau in Portland. He then took a job at the East Oregonian in Pendleton, where he is said to have written the first "flying saucer" story in 1947.

Bequette joined the Herald because "it was a new community and a new newspaper and had a lot of opportunities," he said in a 1986 article announcing his retirement.

"Bill should be credited with moving the Herald into an era of true professionalism. And he was the first to argue with Publisher Glenn C. Lee that women reporters and editors should be paid the same as men," said Herald Executive Editor Ken Robertson, who joined the Herald in 1976. "He ran a disciplined, tough news operation, drawing on his journalism school background and the discipline and toughness he learned in the Army serving in the jungles of New Guinea in World War II.

"He demanded much from all who worked for him and it showed in the Herald's pages."

Bequette's wife, Neva, who was Kennewick's first librarian, died in 1998. He is survived by his daughter, Gail.

* Paula Horton: 509-582-1556;

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