Who was Don Watkins?

watkinsDon Watkins was an amazing man. According to author Chris Carlson, Don nurtured, critiqued and encouraged numerous reporters across Idaho mostly from his post as director of communications for the Department of Education and as press secretary to Idaho Governor John Evans. When he died at the age of 62 on August 24, 1981, the headline in The Spokesman-Review ran “Idaho Buries the Godfather.” His family and friends created the Don Watkins Scholarships in his name.

Bill Hall wrote the following column after Watkins’ death.

The Godfather
By Bill Hall

People refer to the Dutch uncles in their lives by many names. We call ours the Godfather.

We were teasing a bit with that title. But the influence the title suggests was no joke. When the Godfather spoke, governors listened. And congressmen. And legislators. And especially those who hoped to become governors and congressmen and legislators.

And the truth of the matter is that Don Watkins had half of the press of Idaho eating out of his hand — and quite literally, at his table.

He was press secretary to the current governor of Idaho. He was campaign manager and advisor — godfather — to a score of the principal politicians of Idaho during the last 25 years. And reporters by the dozens, in Idaho and elsewhere, including some of the biggest names in the business, regarded him as a personal friend, in many cases as family. Somewhere along the lines most of us were adopted by Don and Ann Watkins.

Professionally, he was the best political public relations man most of the reporters he worked with ever encountered. His technique for ingratiating himself was simple. He had no technique. He merely leveled with us.

And the politicians doted on his advice partly because he kept his head in the heat of the battle. He could dispassionately detach himself from the fray and sort out the smart course and the ethical course. He considered the two virtually synonymous. To him, dirty politicians were worse than sleazy; they were bush leaguers.

But at the first glance backwards, I don’t know why we all liked him so much. I don’t know why we all loved that scrawny, profane little man.
He was always criticizing us. It didn’t matter whether you were a politician he allegedly worked for or a prima donna of the press he was supposed to be nice to. He was never that nice. When you screwed up, he was the first to say so.

“Well, what do you think of that, Godfather?” a person would ask, fishing for a compliment on some imagined master stroke.

“I’d say that’s one of the stupidest damned ideas you’ve ever had,” he would tell a person, no sugar coating, no sweet little verbal hug beforehand – just a straight blunt jab of the truth right to the ego.

Oh, he’d sometimes stroke your ego when he could see you needed it, especially if you were a young person. And when you really knocked it out of the park, he was your biggest fan. And no compliment was sweeter than his because you knew he was on the level.

But no criticism was more useful than his. And the worst part about the times when he knocked the baloney out of your sails — the infuriating part — was that he was usually right. That’s how mean he was.

Of course, there’s nothing mean about it. In the end, candor is the kindest cut of all. And he was so faithful to his friends that he refused to lie to them. So you went to him when in doubt because you could count on him to tell you what you needed to know rather than what you wanted to hear. That’s rare, most especially among friends.

The fact is that our lives are filled with yes-men and women – with mothers, fathers, uncles, spouses, children, friends, assistants — all blessedly blind to our faults, all telling us how clever we are and how right we are.

And how sweet it is to hear. But too much of it can rot your judgment as surely as sugar can rot your teeth.

And so we loved Don Watkins not just for those mostly inexplicable reasons that all friends love each other. Friends by the hundreds also found him invaluable in their lives because he had the decency to be a no-man.

Because he said, no governor, that’s not the brightest idea you’ve ever had.

Because he said, no, Hall, that’s not the cleverest thing anybody has ever written.

Because, thanks to him, your worst ideas didn’t escape from the room and embarrass you in public. He saved you from yourself.

We all need a no-man in our lives. We all need a wise and candid Dutch uncle. We all need a godfather.

But cherish your godfathers while you can because there comes a cruel morning when you wake up to learn that your godfather didn’t. One morning he is gone. And the paradox is that you want to call him to see what you should do about never being able to call him again.

But it is then that you must do what he has been trying to cram into your skull all these years. You must grow up a little. You must begin to rely on your own judgment.

There comes a time in this life when we must become our own godfathers.

And with a little more time, we will. But it’s lonely being your own godfather.