Tom Koenninger, editor emeritus of The Columbian, dies

Newsman’s 57-year career included 37 years at The Columbian

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

Updated: September 30, 2010, 10:16 PM

 

Sara's favorite son

Read Tom Koenninger's final column for The Columbian here.

A newspaperman to the end, Tom Koenninger met his final Columbian deadline with time to spare.

Koenninger died Thursday evening at the Ray Hickey Hospice House. His farewell column in The Columbian ran Wednesday, the day after Koenninger entered hospice care.

Koenninger had a 57-year career as a reporter, editor and columnist, including 37 years at The Columbian.

Since January 2001, Koenninger served as the paper’s editor emeritus. It’s an elegant title for a man who once described himself as a “word-butcher” and whose news assignments included dangling out of an airplane, with one foot braced against a wheel, to take a photograph.

Koenninger also found time to be involved in the community. At the time of his death at the age of 78, Koenninger was a member of Washington’s State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. At the local level, he took part in educational, historical and civic committees and boards. And not to universal acclaim, his wife said.

“A lot of people thought that as a newsman, he shouldn’t be involved,” Marilyn Koenninger said a few days ago in her husband’s hospice room.

“Tom was very passionate about his community and about The Columbian and its role in the community,” said Scott Campbell, owner and publisher of The Columbian. “He was very engaged in serving on boards and community nonprofits, and saw this as one way to better the community and network with community leaders at the same time.”

“More volunteers like Tom Koenninger equals a better society,” said Charlie Earl, executive director of the two-year college board. “We’d be better educated, healthier, more compassionate. He was so consistent in those areas.”

Son of Sara

Koenninger came by his community connection naturally, as a local product who was raised in Sara, a community north of Vancouver. His formative years there were the subject of his last column.

But that Wednesday column actually was Koenninger’s second farewell piece. He penned his first version in October 2000, when he announced his retirement as editor and vice president. In that column, Koenninger recalled memorable moments as a photo and print journalist.

Like … “Being held by the feet over the railing of a Navy ship so that I could photograph a whale. I’ve aimed my lens close enough to raging fires to feel my face burning.

“My camera has pictured death in many forms, from acts of violence to automobile wrecks to plane crashes,” he wrote, adding that his stories more often “have documented the warmth of humankind. There have been hundreds of stories and pictures of people helping, nurturing and teaching each other.”

And in a 1997 column that was a tribute to former newsroom colleagues, Koenninger talked about the people who shared his vocation.

“(Jim) Hughes and I worked together at the dawn of our careers. He also introduced 35 mm photography to The Columbian. When I arrived the first time, in 1956, the newspaper had a Crown Graphic camera in a closet. It produced a monstrous 4-by-5-inch negative. The Crown Graphic was big and heavy, but it parted the crowds. Anyone who carried it was instantly identified as a member of the press. If someone got nasty, the camera could be used as a weapon,” Koenninger wrote.

“Another time, Hughes was shooting pictures of construction of the navigational hump in the I-5 Bridge from my small boat when we heard a series of sizzling sounds. The steel workers were throwing hot rivets at us.”

Koenninger’s column also had a respectful nod for Erwin Rieger, who’d been born during the Klondike gold rush and was an intimidating editor.

“Once Hughes and I decided to climb to the top of the Interstate 5 Bridge to get a higher view of ice floes in the Columbia River. We asked Rieger to give us a personal note or press card so we could get past the bridge tender. He refused. ‘Anybody who can’t talk his way up the bridge isn’t worth the name reporter,’ he told us. We mastered that challenge, negotiated a heart-stopping, perilous climb to the top, and got pictures and the story.”

In 1973, it was Koenninger’s turn to run The Columbian’s newsroom. After stops at Spokane and Centralia, he returned to Vancouver as executive news director. His tenure was marked by a period of explosive growth in Clark County.

“Tom’s value to The Columbian and this community is really immeasurable,” said Lou Brancaccio, editor of The Columbian. “He was a brass-knuckle supporter of the importance of a daily newspaper and how a great daily newspaper can make a community better.”

Tireless explorer

Gregg Herrington, a longtime newsroom employee, called Koenninger “a master at meeting the needs of the community, his employees and the paper itself. He left his ego at the door while striving to make this a better place and leave his employees confident, enriched and proud to be in the business.”

“He was an editor who never tired of exploring Clark County — discovering and rediscovering its nooks and crannies and meeting its people. Invariably, he would return to the office bubbling with enthusiasm and produce a piece of scratch paper or napkin on which numerous story ideas were scribbled in a handwriting only he could decipher,” Herrington, now a Battle Ground Public Schools spokesman, said in an e-mail message.

“Without question, Tom was the best all-around, I-can-do-every-job editor I’ve ever dealt with,” said John Brewer, former chief of The Associated Press bureau in Seattle.

“He was in incredible writer,” said Brewer, now editor and publisher of the Peninsula Daily News in Port Angeles. “He continued writing his column through his illnesses — cancer, then heart problems, then cancer again.”

Koenninger was a 1951 graduate of Clark College, and he went on to the University of Washington. He was named a recipient of Clark College’s Outstanding Alumni Award in 1990.

Through all the recent transitions in his life, her husband never considered himself a former journalist, Marilyn Koenninger said shortly before his death.

“He still has a press card,” she said in the hospice room. “You never know when you come across a story.”

A newspaperman to the end.