Reporting on Boston’s schools and government during some of the city’s most volatile years, Walt Sanders scrupulously avoided embellishing the sentences he spoke on WBZ-TV with words that could tweak the meaning of what he was saying.
“As his editor for many years, I read plenty of his scripts,’’ said Peter Brown, a former news director at WBZ. “More than once, I might suggest to Walt that he add a few more descriptive adjectives to his script. He would look at me and say in the most polite voice: ‘Sorry, Peter, but that would be adding my opinion. I like to stick to the facts.’ ’’
That embrace of straight news drew respect in equal measure from viewers and from the people he covered.
“I did a lot of interviews with Walt Sanders over the years about some of the most difficult days of Boston’s busing crisis,’’ said former mayor Raymond L. Flynn. “I can easily say that he was one of the most honest and factual reporters that has interviewed me. He really set an example for the rest of the media in Boston.’’
Mr. Sanders, who spent 27 years at WBZ and was one of the first black television reporters in Boston, died of bone marrow cancer Monday in HPH Hospice in Brooksville, Fla. He was 81 and had lived in Spring Hill, Fla., after many years in Milford.
“Walt was a reporter before all the live shots, before you had to embellish everything, before the 10-second stories and the 1-minute stories,’’ said Sarah-Ann Shaw, a former reporting colleague at WBZ. “Walt did thoughtful coverage because he felt it was important to present a full picture and educate people about what was going on.’’
That wasn’t an easy task during Boston’s years of busing and desegregation, when viewers and nearly anyone a reporter encountered on Boston’s streets parsed every word and gesture for potential bias about the city’s most important story.
“People trusted Walt,’’ said Shaw, who was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2008 and was honored for her pioneering role as a black female TV reporter in Boston. “They knew he was a person who could be trusted to tell their stories correctly.’’
“Those were ugly days in Boston,’’ Flynn recalled. “There were people who fanned the flames, and there were healers. Walt was one of the steady voices who brought reason to the discussion.’’
By insisting on being fair, Mr. Sanders stood out, Flynn said.
“I know there was a lot of frustration in Boston at the time, but with Walt, you got an honest opportunity to express your point of view and how you felt,’’ Flynn said. “He was such an honorable, decent, and professional man. They don’t come around too often.’’
Mr. Sanders was born and grew up in Akron, Ohio. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, and also studied at the Columbia School of Broadcasting, now based in Virginia.
He worked in other large cities before being hired in 1968 at WBZ, where his deep voice and towering height made him hard to miss in the newsroom or on assignment.
“A lot of people used to refer to him as a gentle giant,’’ said his son, Walter Jr. of Tampa. “He was about 6-4, but he was a very laid-back guy. He never had a bad word to say about anyone, ever.’’
In the WBZ newsroom, “he was a calming influence,’’ said Brown, who is now chief of staff to the chief executive of Partners HealthCare.
“The best way to describe Walt is that he was a true gentleman, and that’s how he approached journalism,’’ Brown said. “He was a gentleman journalist.’’
At WBZ, the education beat was particularly important to Mr. Sanders.
“He was an excellent reporter, and he was committed to covering education,’’ Shaw said. “He felt education was something that had to be covered so that people understood the issues, both pro and con.’’
Covering school desegregation “was a hard assignment,’’ she said. “It wasn’t always pleasant, you weren’t always welcome, but Walt carried it off with grace and dignity and honesty. I think people on both sides felt Walt was there to present the truth.’’
On assignment, Mr. Sanders would take a moment to speak with children and youths when possible, offering words of encouragement about their lives.
“Walt really liked young people,’’ Shaw said. “If he was invited to go to a school to talk, he never turned that opportunity down.’’
Mr. Sanders worked at WBZ from 1968 to 1995, according to the station. In retirement, he served as president of the state’s AARP chapter.
In that role, he advised other retirees on matters ranging from avoiding scams to making the best use of a day.
“Time management puts you in control of your life,’’ Mr. Sanders told the Globe in a 2000 interview about how retirees could cope with the potential stress of empty hours.
“If you get a handle on how you spend your time, you will work smarter, get closer to your goals, have time for creative thought, and enjoy life.’’
After leaving WBZ, Mr. Sanders also participated in the Senior Olympics, said his daughter, Carolyn Sanders-Glover of Medford. A jazz aficionado, he kept a substantial collection of albums at home.
He and his wife, the former Alice Brown, would have celebrated their 48th anniversary this month, their children said.
During his many years at WBZ, Mr. Sanders “believed that a story should be based on the facts, not opinion,’’ Brown said. “He had no time for unnamed sources. He wanted to talk to people on the record.’’
“They don’t make reporters like Walt any more,’’ Shaw said, “and if they do, I’m not seeing them.’’
A service will be announced for Mr. Sanders, who in addition to his wife, daughter, and son leaves a sister, Pauline Berry of Minneapolis, and four grandchildren.
Though known for his gentlemanly demeanor, Mr. Sanders “spoke up on behalf of other people,’’ Shaw said, particularly when it came to hiring practices at work and news decisions. “He had no qualms about talking to management about the lack of minority reporters, or the lack of coverage of certain issues.
“Even though Walt and I both worked at WBZ during the so-called civil rights years, there were still times at the end of his time at WBZ and mine that positive stories about the African American community didn’t get covered. Walt always spoke up.’’