Walt Tabak · 2012
Walt Tabak is the recipient of the 2012 John P. McMeel Distinguished Service Award.
Walt Tabak’s 25 years of providing technology support to Associated Press members in Indiana overlapped monumental changes in the way words and pictures were delivered to the state’s newsrooms.
Tabak helped AP members make changes as dramatic as moving words at 66 words a minute and delivered by Teletype to 1,200 words a minute and delivered by satellite. When he began, photos were delivered on flimsy paper. By the time he retired in 1986, photos were called “LaserPhotos.”
“If one measure of success is the ability to deal with change, few people could be considered more successful than Walt Tabak,” concluded Jack Ronald, editor and publisher of The Commercial Review in Portland. “I can think of no one who had a greater impact on news technology in Indiana in the 20th Century.”
As chief of communications for The Associated Press in Indiana, Tabak supervised a team of communications specialists and was responsible for ensuring that Associated Press news, photos and stock market information reached hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations throughout Indiana.
For leading in a time of extensive change in the AP’s methods of transmitting the news, Walt Tabak is the winner of the first Distinguished Service Award established by the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.
Tabak began his lifetime in communications at age 20 when he joined the U.S. Army during World War II. He was assigned to the 418th Signal Company attached to the Eighth Air Force Fighter Command in England. He crossed the English Channel and landed at Le Havre, France. Tabak was trained as a radio/teletype operator, which made him a natural for communications work with The Associated Press. His entire life has been in communications and serving the news media.
Tabak joined the AP in 1952, and in his first assignment in New London, Conn., he sent all the copy when the world’s first atomic submarine, the Nautilus, was launched. After assignments in Bridgeport, Conn., and New York City, he moved to Indianapolis as a technician in 1961 and was promoted to Indiana chief of communications two years later.
While chiefs of bureau were in charge of the news report and membership concerns, it was often Tabak, or his technicians, who went out in the worst weather to make sure that newspapers and broadcast stations stayed in business.
Former Indiana Chief of Bureau Joe McGowan – one of six AP chiefs of bureau with whom Tabak worked – recalls that in 1972 the Evansville Courier called the AP office in Indianapolis to say it had lost all AP service. It was late in the day. Tabak got his wife Dot to join him and they drove to Evansville to personally make the repairs. While he worked in the newspaper, Dot slept in the car. Late that night, with repairs complete, Walt joined Dot and she drove back to Indianapolis while Walt slept. He then went to work the next morning, ready to serve other members.
Tabak recalls being stranded in a blizzard in Farmersburg, south of Terre Haute, after a trouble call in Vincennes. Publisher Bill Brooks of the Sun-Commercial suggested he stay over, but Tabak stubbornly set out to return to Indianapolis. He made it as far as a truck stop in Farmersburg and spent three days there, swapping stories with truckers.
On another occasion, Tabak recalls when his son Ron drove him in his four-wheel truck to Elkhart to help get the paper back in service during a blizzard.
When Tabak marked his 30th anniversary with AP in 1982, AP President Keith Fuller was among many who cited his accomplishments.
“I could recount here the numerous compliments and bouquets that have come your way over the years, both from members and staffers alike,” Fuller said. “Suffice it to say that one would have to go a long way to find another chief of communications as well-liked and as thoroughly professional as you.”
While chiefs of bureaus came and went, Tabak and his wife were the continuing welcoming face to members and non-members alike. He helped preside over conventions, made visits with the chiefs, and turned each trouble call into a chance to solidify the bonds between the cooperative and the member.
He didn’t only fix things. He listened to member concerns and he was a teacher during this time of great change.
“Walt was a constant comfort for Indiana newspapers,” said Bob Zaltsberg, editor of the Herald-Times of Bloomington. “During a time of transition in technology, he was the one person between AP and its members when it came to systems problems.”
Tim Harmon, executive editor of the South Bend Tribune, noting the many changes in news delivery technology during Tabak’s career, said, “Transitions such as those went very smoothly, and the few problems and complaints were handled very well. Walt’s work was seamless and routinely invisible. Walt’s quick responses to the occasional transmission or reception crisis are legendary.
“The high-quality service that Walt embraced and practiced for so many years served generations of newspaper staffs and readers who never met him or heard his name. In Indiana, Walt Tabak set the standard for technological excellence in journalism.”
Tabak annually played a major role in one of the world’s greatest sporting events, the Indianapolis 500, and was responsible for setting up the communications networks at the Speedway that AP writers and photographers depended upon to cover the 500.
Like many in the field of journalism, Tabak’s job was a 24/7 commitment that required a balance of his AP work with family life. Tabak and Dot raised two children, Barbara and Ron.
“As we were growing up, my dad always knew how to balance work and family,” Barbara Tabak Burris said. “Often, when he would get a trouble call in the evening or on the weekend, we would all go and make a family outing of it. Ron and I learned a lot about Indiana history and visited towns and cities in Indiana that our friends had never heard of.
“During the years we were growing up, the Associated Press people who worked with or for my dad were our second family. We grew up with their kids and shared many family activities with them.”
Tabak and his wife Dot were married for 48 years, until her death in 1996. Besides their daughter Barbara and son Ron, they have a grandson Travis and great-granddaughter Olivia.
By Andrew Lippman, Indianapolis chief of bureau, 1984-89
and Paul Stevens, Indianapolis chief of bureau, 1982-84