Walter “Dusty” Saunders, who worked for the Rocky Mountain News for more than a half-century while establishing himself as one of the country’s top entertainment critics, died Sunday at age 90.
Saunders passed away in his sleep from natural causes. He leaves behind a legacy as a Denver journalism icon, having written more stories for the Rocky than any other columnist in the paper’s 149-year history.
“He was the paper’s north star,” said John Temple, former editor of the Rocky Mountain News. “He wrote in a conversational way, always telling it like he saw it, yet never being cruel. Readers could count on him to talk to them like he was sitting in the same room with them, and they could count on him to answer the questions he knew they’d have.
“It’s hard to imagine Denver without Dusty, or Colorado journalism without him. He was a giant — and a great man, a Denver man.”
Saunders, a second-generation Coloradan, was born on Sept. 24, 1931, in Denver. Both of his parents died by the time he was 10, so radio, books and sports became his friends and pillars during his childhood. He attended Holy Family High School, starring in basketball as a 6-foot-3 center with a sweeping hook shot.
After attending Fort Lewis and Mesa, both junior colleges at the time where he played basketball, he graduated from the University of Colorado.
Saunders got his start at the Rocky Mountain News as a copy boy in 1953. That was the start of a 54-year run with the paper, the majority of it spent as a TV/entertainment critic and columnist.
In that position, Saunders developed a reputation for being tough, but fair.
“Even if he was writing a column that was critical, he would always call me first to help me understand what he was thinking — he wouldn’t just deliver a broadside,” explained Sandy Clough, a longtime area sports talkshow host. “He demonstrated that he valued substance over style — there could be always stylistic disagreements, but substance always mattered to him.”
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said, “You never had to guess about what Dusty meant.”
“He represented the very best of times in journalism in Denver when facts mattered, and he articulated the thoughts of his readers,” Hancock said. “He was a community soldier indeed.”
Saunders’ impact on the industry extended well beyond Colorado. He was a founding member and past president of the Television Critics Association, which helped broaden access for entertainment reporters across the country.
“Dusty was a major figure in TV criticism nationally,” entertainment reporter Mark Wolfe said. “The TCA wrenched control and greatly professionalized the semi-annual network screening/interviewing gatherings, ensuring the events would be open to all journalists — not just those invited by the networks — and expanding the scope of the event far beyond the upcoming fall schedule. The respect Dusty had among both the critics and the TV industry helped give TCA its clout.”
Clough described Saunders as “one of the last of the great storytellers.”
Personal relationships were critical for Saunders’ reporting, and he was friends with a long list of entertainment stars, including the likes of celebrities Bette Davis, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Gregory Peck and Mary Tyler Moore. Ball, in fact, once chastised Saunders when he fell asleep on the couch in her home during an interview session. He and some fellow writers had spent a long night “on the town” the previous evening.
“Listening to him tell old Hollywood stories never got old,” Clough said. “He had a great sense of the world of entertainment, and he was a great listener. He really was curious about other people and about what other people thought. He could weave a yarn about some of the great actors, actresses, personalities and celebrities over the years. There weren’t too many people that he didn’t come to know, and that was reflected in his work.”
Saunders is survived by his wife of 67 years, Anita, and four children and six grandchildren. His impact on his kids’ career choices was also profound.
“His career influenced our whole family,” said oldest son Patrick Saunders, who is The Denver Post’s Rockies beat writer and the state’s 2018 sportswriter of the year. “I went into the newspaper world, my brother Steve went into the TV business for a number of years, sister Katie has been in the movie business as a costume and wardrobe designer for movies and TV, and my brother Bryan got into video production on various levels. It was like our whole life revolved around the things my dad did.”
After retiring from the Rocky Mountain News, Saunders worked as a freelancer for The Denver Post as a sports TV critic. He was proud of his Irish heritage and loved playing tennis, reading, and visiting Laguna Beach, Calif., on vacation.
His passing leaves a void of “a true original and an institution in his own right,” national TV journalist Katie Couric said.
“He wrote it as he saw it — with candor and humor and when it was called for, compassion,” Couric said. “I feel lucky to have known him and his wonderful family. They don’t make them like Dusty anymore. “
Details for Saunders’ services are still being finalized, but are likely to occur on June 16, the family said. It will include a celebration of his life at the Denver Press Club, where Saunders was the former president and is in the Hall of Fame.
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