In his last public post, beloved Denver reporter Dusty Saunders wrote that he was orphaned at age 9 and had missed some of the basics of a normal childhood. He never, for example, became tech-savvy in any way. “I avoided this kind of course at school so I could play sports and chase girls,” he wrote last November. “Hey, there are worse vices.”
Saunders’ father died of a lung disease when he was 8 years old. His mother died of a heart attack 18 months later. Dusty was their only child. But over the next 80 years, Saunders laid the foundation for two strong families: his blood family with his wife Anita and his loyal readership.
Although he never mastered how to replace a ribbon, Saunders wrote, “I eventually learned to handle a typewriter quite well and found a career that I loved.”
That career consisted of writing…and writing…and writing…primarily on local and national media as a broadcast critic for the Rocky Mountain News and, after its 2009 fold, The Denver Post. He is believed to have written more articles for The Rocky Mountain News than anyone in that newspaper’s long and storied history. And he did it with an approachable charm and an almost miraculous lack of cruelty.
“They don’t make them like Dusty anymore,” journalist and former White House press secretary Bill Moyers once said of Saunders. “He brought nobility to the greatest generation of ink-stained wretches who ever manhandled a remote control.”
Saunders, who died Sunday at the age of 90, kept the media honest while managing to never make enemies.
He was, in the words of his son Patrick, “a giant of Colorado journalism”. He was among the last of Denver’s once-many specialty writers before continued job cuts in journalism turned most of the remaining reporters into generalists.
“I think his passing closes a chapter in journalism in Denver,” local freelance writer Dan Danbon wrote today. “He was THE media columnist in Denver. Plus, he was a good guy, always gregarious and friendly, with no hint of snobbery about him.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said today that he grew up reading Saunders’ chronicles. “Dusty was one of a kind, a great writer who was always honest and clear,” Hancock said. “He represented the best of journalism’s moments in Denver when facts mattered and he always spoke the thoughts of his readers. He was truly a soldier in the community.
Walter Patrick “Dusty” Saunders was born on September 24, 1931 in Denver. He became a skinny 6-foot-3 star basketball center with a wicked hook shot for Holy Family High School in North Denver. “During his senior year, a Denver Post sportswriter wrote that my dad was the best hooker in Denver high schools,” Patrick wrote on his father’s 90th birthday.
Although the Holy Family Class of 1949 numbered just 96, Saunders counted among his classmates Jerry Kennedy, a larger-than-life Denver cop who also died this month. Saunders then played basketball at two junior colleges in Colorado before graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Saunders began his journalism career in the fall of 1953 as a copyist at the Rocky Mountain News, where he worked for 56 years. He covered police and town hall news and was a harassed and overworked editor of the newspaper’s articles section before embarking on his award-winning 40-year run as a media columnist. And it was a beat, ironically in retrospect, that he had to fight for.
“He had to convince his editors that writing about the new television medium was a good idea – and he became one of the most popular newspaper columnists in Denver’s history,” said Joanne Ostrow, who covered the same beat for The Denver Post from 1984 to 2016.
Saunders was an exceptionally friendly rival, Ostrow said. Probably because he really was a happy guy. The two co-hosted a popular radio show on KHOW and had a regular lunch date. Saunders, she said, was a man with a million stories to tell.
“Dusty was a wonderfully welcoming presence when I hit the beat,” Ostrow said. “He was a great journalist as well as being a really nice guy and a proud family man.”
When the Rocky was closed in 2009, Dusty later said, “I cried like a little boy.” Over the next three years, he wrote a weekly sports column for the Denver Post, and in 2012 he published his autobiography, “Heeere’s Dusty: Life in the World of Television and Newspapers,” which received praise from all over.
“No one has covered sports on television as thoroughly as Dusty Saunders,” the late and legendary Dick Enberg said when the book was released. “He understood the machinations of television coverage as well as the talent that covered games.”
Saunders married Anita Murnan, also a Denver native and now his wife of 67 years, in November 1955. Together they had four children: Katie, Patrick, Steve and Bryan, and six grandchildren.
All four children were influenced by their father’s career path. Patrick covers the Colorado Rockies for the Denver Post, Steve worked for 11 years at KMGH Channel 7, Katie is a costume and wardrobe designer for film and television, and Bryan works in video production.
It’s a far cry from Saunders’ childhood, growing up alone and out of place. “In the 1940s, my father’s companions were radio, books and sports,” writes Patrick. “He became a St. Louis Cardinals fan because his radio could pick up the strong signal from KMOX Radio in St. Louis.” For Dusty’s Milestone 90e birthday, Patrick bought his dad a Cardinals t-shirt with the image of Stan Musial and the words “The MAN”.
When Saunders’ mother died, Dusty was nearly sent to an orphanage. “My dad had brothers and a sister in Texas, who really didn’t get ahead,” he wrote. “And my mother had no siblings.”
Enter the woman he called “Auntie Sly”, even though she didn’t have a sneaky bone in her body.
Sylvia Easton had worked with Dusty’s mother at the telephone company. She and her husband, Dave, took in Dusty and raised him, along with their own daughter and son. But their relationship wasn’t one to love TV sitcoms, Dusty said. Sylvia was distant; Dusty was scared. But years later, when an adult Dusty started his own family, “I realized Aunt Sly had saved my life,” he said. That’s when he found out that, had it not been for her, he would have been sent to an orphanage where he could have thrived anyway – but because Aunt Sly got involved, he never had to find out.
Although there was no life insurance or inheritance, Sylvia paid to send Dusty to St. Catherine’s and Holy Family Catholic schools in North Denver, in accordance with her mother’s wishes. She and Dave supported Saunders throughout college. She died in 1990 at the age of 99.
Throughout his lifetime, Saunders’ love of Denver and its institutions was interchangeable.
In the early 1960s, young Denver Broncos offered subscriptions to the media and their families. When the team became popular and newspapers instituted ethics policies, local sportswriters were given the option to keep their subscriptions for purchase. “We’ve had these tickets in the family for almost 50 years,” Patrick said.
When John Elway directed “The Drive” in Cleveland that sent the Broncos to the 1987 Super Bowl, Dusty was on a mission in Southern California. “He watched the game alone in his hotel room,” Patrick wrote. When the Broncos won the game in historic fashion, “my dad was so excited he picked up a surprised housekeeper and gave her a bear hug when she walked into the room.”
Saunders was one of the founders of the Television Critics Association, “which pushed networks into access and made the whole entertainment reporting effort more professional,” Ostrow said. Saunders is also a past president of the Denver Press Club, where he is a member of its Hall of Fame.
But he also loved music, counting among his favorites Gene Kelly and his umbrella wading through the streets in “Singing in the Rain”; the great tenor saxophonist Stan Getz performing “Moonlight in Vermont”; Frank Sinatra singing “New York New York”; and the Broadway showtunes “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” and “What I Did for Love” from “A Chorus Line.”
Saunders tried to retire in 2012 when his book was published and his bones started to crack. “Error,” he wrote. “My normal sunny Irish temperament has too often been replaced by this terrible condition – bad temper,” he wrote. So in May 2019, he started a blog, of all things tech-savvy electronics, and he shared his Twain-style witticisms with readers until last November.
A service is scheduled for June 16 at the Denver Press Club.