Texas journalism colleagues, friends remember Ken Bunting

By Tim Madigan
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Originally published April 21, 2014

On Saturday, former Star-Telegram Executive Editor Mike Blackman wrote briefly on Facebook about a young business acquaintance who had died unexpectedly.

“To know that he is no longer with us is quite sad,” Blackman wrote. “I’m not a touchy-feely guy, but this is true — make amends, be patient and let others know how grateful you are to have them in your lives.”

The first to comment was another Star-Telegram alumnus, Blackman’s close friend, Ken Bunting.

“So sorry to hear,” Mr. Bunting wrote. “Unexpected [deaths] are poignant reminders that life is fleeting and that relationships should not be taken for granted.”

The next day, Blackman received a telephone call from Mr. Bunting’s wife, Juli. Earlier Sunday, she said, Ken Bunting collapsed and died from an apparent heart attack while playing tennis near his Missouri home.

Mr. Bunting was 65.

“Ken was a great journalist and an even better person,” Jim Witt, Star-Telegram senior vice president and executive editor, said Monday. “The Star-Telegram is mourning the loss of one of our best today.”

A Houston native, Mr. Bunting graduated from TCU in 1970. In 2004, Mr. Bunting was among the first inductees to the TCU Journalism School’s Hall of Excellence, and over five decades fashioned a distinguished career in American newspapering. But the day after his death, friends and colleagues were more likely reflecting on his laugh, collegiality and generosity of spirit.

“He was just a good guy all the way around,” Blackman said. “Colleague, friend, husband, father, journalist. It’s hard for me to even talk about him. He was such a dear man. When Juli told me yesterday, I was stunned all day long and I’m still stunned today. I can’t believe he’s gone. I don’t know anyone who would have had a harsh word about him.”

As the Star-Telegram’s Austin Bureau chief in 1989, Mr. Bunting hired young reporter Joe Cutbirth.

“He was the one that everybody at the paper wanted to work for, and that is rare for someone whose title is editor,” Cutbirth said Monday. “The list of people who have said in the last 48 hours that Ken Bunting gave them their big break is pretty much endless. Ken was there for me in ways that I’ve never forgot.”

Mr. Bunting spent seven years at the Star-Telegram, beginning in Austin in late 1980s. He later moved to Fort Worth, where he served as the paper’s city editor and assistant managing editor.

“He strengthened our staff almost overnight,” Blackman said.

Mr. Bunting’s first newspaper job came at the Cincinnati Post shortly after his graduation from TCU. At the time he was the only African-American on the staff.

“That didn’t bother him a bit,” said Henry Holcomb, Mr. Bunting’s city editor there. “Everybody just loved him. I hired a lot of people over the years, and he was clearly one of the best. He was just a very sensitive guy who was constantly trying to find stories for his readers. He’d make a U-turn on a one-way street if he saw a story over his shoulder.”

Mr. Bunting later worked in Sacramento, Calif., and as a reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times before Blackman hired him at the Star-Telegram.

“He had a very outgoing personality,” Blackman said. “You could meet him and 10 minutes later you felt like you had been friends with him for a long time. He just had a way of making you like him and trust him and that’s the kind of thing that made him a good reporter. He genuinely cared about people.”

As an editor, Mr. Bunting was a mentor and coach to his reporters, Cutbirth said. He was also fiercely loyal. Cutbirth recalled how Mr. Bunting once confronted Texas legislators who had behaved inappropriately with a female Star-Telegram reporter.

In the early 1990s, when Cutbirth reported on criminal investigations involving prominent state politicians, Mr. Bunting never wavered in his support.

“Ken probably saved my job, but he would never let me know it,” Cutbirth said. “I found out about some things later that I couldn’t imagine. He had all the right values, and was in journalism for all the right reasons.”

Cutbirth’s last correspondence with Bunting was also on Facebook. Outside of his family and journalism, Mr. Bunting’s consuming passions were TCU sports and tennis. Before a recent University of Texas-TCU baseball series, Cutbirth, a UT grad, engaged in some Facebook trash talking.

“Be afraid. Be very afraid,” Mr. Bunting replied.

“You know what? TCU swept Texas in that series,” Cutbirth said. “I was thinking about how to respond when I saw the news [of Mr. Bunting’s death.] He loved the Horned Frogs, he loved tennis, and he loved the people who worked for him.

“I feel like a small speck in a sea of people who don’t know what to say or do today,” Cutbirth said. “It’s the type of news that makes the world stop.”

Mr. Bunting left the Star-Telegram in the mid-1990s to become a senior editor and later associate publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In his 17 years there, he led the paper to two Pulitzer Prizes and many other major awards. Condolences from former Seattle staffers poured onto Mr. Bunting’s Facebook page Monday.

In 2010, he was hired as the first full-time director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He left that job shortly before his death.

Retired TCU journalism professor Doug Newsom, who taught Mr. Bunting in the late 1960s, nominated him for the school’s Hall of Excellence.

“But if I hadn’t submitted his name, somebody else would have,” Newsom said. “You couldn’t overlook Ken Bunting. He was just an outstanding human being. It’s a terrible loss to his family and friends, but it’s also a terrible loss to the field.

“He had a lot of curiosity and not much patience with bad behavior on the part of anybody in authority. He felt compelled to expose it so something could be done about it.”

Over the years, Mr. Bunting remained a regular visitor to Fort Worth, making several appearances on the TCU campus and taking in Horned Frog sporting events.

“He always stayed with us when he came to town,” Blackman said. “We loved the guy. He’s just one of those people when you feel like something in your world has changed when they are not around. He had such an influence on his friends. I’m not going to be the same for a while, I’ll tell you that.”

Survivors include his wife and college-age son, Maxwell Bunting.

Read more here: http://www.star-telegram.com/2014/04/21/5754508/a-newspaper-career-of-great-stories.html#my-headlines-default?rh=1#storylink=cpy