You may not know his name or recognize his face, but Wally Zimmermann, in many ways, shaped the television news industry here in Hawaii.
And many of us in the business and beyond are mourning his passing Thursday at the age of 73.
In his lifetime, he accumulated 35 years of news and production credentials. He owned a public relations company from 2012-15 before he and his wife and daughter moved near Nashville, Tennessee, where he died at their home on Thursday.
A native of Chicago, Zimmermann served in the army and eventually made his way to Hawaii to KHON2 News in 1981.
It didn’t take long for him to put his influence on the product the viewers came to watch and trust.
“Wally was one of these rare people who knew that, when you manage people, you treat them like family,” said Pamela Young, who worked with Zimmermann for more than 20 years. “So very often in the newsroom, he would be vacuuming the floor, and emptying trash cans and changing light bulbs, because he taught us that no job is too low and anything you do in the newsroom is going to help somebody.”
Young said it was Zimmermann who came up with the soon-to-be-popular Mixed Plate feature that took her off the police beat.
“I think he, along with Bob Sevey and Jack Kellner, built the news industry in Hawaii,” she said. “They molded so many of us. We’re going to remember them and, hopefully, the next generation will adhere to their ethics of journalism.”
Zimmermann was the station’s news director from 1981-87 and again from 2002-06, where he was responsible for the weekday morning news. Between his stints at KHON2, he was also vice-president of news at KITV from 1988-2001.
“I will always remember him as being a great manager, a great mentor and definitely a trusted friend,” said former reporter Jill Kuramoto, now director of communications at the Hawaii State Senate.
“I remember how he never encouraged reporters to submit our stories for awards, because he always said we became journalists not to win awards, but to tell good stories. And that’s always kind of stayed with me.
“He taught that, in just very gentle ways of encouraging us, to somehow write better, to be better, to ask better questions,” she said.
“Wally had a talent for recognizing talent and he assembled a newsroom that was talented, that was happy and cohesive,” said Jodi Leong, now Gov. Ige’s press secretary. “It’s probably the best newsroom I’ve ever worked in.
“So many of us would go to him with our troubles,” she said. “We would go to him for guidance. He was the best counselor and we will miss him dearly.”
Leong added that “he was also the best storyteller. We would be riveted when he would break out his arsenal of stories about his experiences. For example, his roommate at Ripon College (in Wisconsin) was Harrison Ford, and also during college, he told us stories about dating Ann-Margret, who was a movie star in her day.
“He was a gem of a man and I will miss him always.”
His 21-year-old daughter Dawson told us “he was a wonderful father and I’m so happy that so many people love him, too.”
Besides being a news junkie and a great family man, Zimmermann loved nothing more than fishing, baseball, and a cold beer.
Young remembers that “he always said that some day he was going to retire to a lakefront and open Wally’s Beer and Bait Shop, so somewhere in heaven, he’s going to be doing some really good fishing.”
His family is planning a memorial here sometime in March.