By John Wenzel
Emmy-winning directors and producers, particularly ones as decorated as Walter Baas, are still fair game for pledge drives when they work for public television.
“Walter was one of the people the pledge-drive volunteers loved most,” said John Burshtan, who worked with Baas for nearly a decade at Rocky Mountain PBS creating nationally broadcast and award-winning series such as “Spirit of Colorado.” “He just embraced it, and if he had to shoot a stack of bags of fertilizer, he would make it look lovely. And then he would go out on the floor, answer phones and stay late tallying the results.”
Baas, who died on June 1 after a battle with cancer, wouldn’t have cared if anyone knew about the more than 50 awards he won as a director of photography, producer and globe-trotting journalist for local and national news organizations and nonprofits.
The prizes he gathered for Rocky Mountain PBS, KMGH Channel-7 and others were blurry background subjects compared to his 37-year professional quest to perfect visual storytelling, or his family at the Denver Press Club, where he wanted his contributions — from the Damon Runyon Award scholarships to roof repairs and a new leather couch — to be anonymous.
And those Emmys? He kept them stuffed in a box in his basement.
“I didn’t even know about them until we started talking and looking through things,” said Donna Yoshikawa, Baas’ partner. They met in 2016 and fell for each other over a shared obsession with rare collectable books. “He just showed them to me, put them back in the box and shoved them in the closet. As one of his mentors used to say, ‘If you’re in this for the awards, get out.'”
Baas wasn’t. The southern gentleman, as many former colleagues called him, discovered a love of video equipment when his Boy Scout troop received a donation of television equipment, prompting Baas to teach himself how to use it.
Born in Alabama on Sept. 4, 1958, Baas earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in broadcast journalism from the Edinboro University of Pennsylvania before decamping to Louisiana to help a pair of upstart TV stations. When he arrived in Colorado, he found a landscape ripe for his creativity and entrepreneurship.
“He was often the smartest person in the room, and he knew it,” said Gay Porter DeNileon, who worked with Walter as a fellow manager in the publications department at American Water Works Association, a Denver nonprofit that works internationally to increase access to clean water. “(He was) a man of big words and acerbic comments, but also of a quick wit and a generous heart. Walter celebrated Mardi Gras by bringing King Cakes into the office, and when VooDoo Donuts (came to Denver) he brought those in to share. Although he always did it anonymously, we knew who did it. He was a caring son and brother, taking care of his ailing mother and sister even when his own health was precarious.”
Baas, who never married or had kids, watched all of his family predecease him, Yoshikawa said. But his life was so full of motion, from working with interns to generating and shaping hundreds of hours of diverse nonfiction television, that sitting still never really occurred to him.
“He had so many ideas for local programming when we’d brainstorm,” said Cynthia Hessin, a former Denver Press Club president and executive at Rocky Mountain PBS who frequently worked with Baas in the field. “He came up with this great title for a show — Colorado Dot Now — in the late ’90s, long before everything dot-com was on everybody’s radar screens. He was a true professional who was always thinking creatively.”
In the field, Baas could be persuasive, patient and open-minded, waking before sunrise to film’s Colorado’s daily light show, or horse-trading with far-flung sources to produce national-quality content on a meager budget.
“In addition to making the simple stories magical, whenever there was a complex story with difficult logistics, challenging weather, not enough money, or simply someone saying, ‘They’ll never let you do it,’ Walter always found a way,” PBS colleague Burshtan said. “For ‘Spirit of Colorado,’ we traversed almost every road that is on a map in Colorado and many that aren’t. He worked every angle he could, and the few dollars that were actually in the budget we used for gasoline. Walter was a genius at getting the kind of shots we take for granted today, whether the subject was cowboys or something more esoteric like water or trees.”
“I called him my renaissance man,” Yoshikawa said. “When we’d go antiquing or to art galleries or our favorite restaurants, people were just drawn to him. He had a way about him where he was always offering his help and advice, and he really believed in the mission statements of the nonprofits he worked for and the many artists he supported.”
Baas was also a respected game developer who loved the strategic challenge of writing lore for tabletop games as much as the social bonding they engendered. His work for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game Dark Sun in the early 1990s helped set a modern standard for rich, emotionally compelling fantasy writing that earned fans around the world. He also wrote numerous tournaments for events such as Gen Con, Winter Fantasy, TactiCon and Genghis Con, according to the online database BoardGameGeek.
In recent years Baas was “not full-time, not retired and not in any hurry,” as the intro text on his LinkedIn page declared. But anyone who knew him felt his urgency to connect, organize and reinvigorate every place he inhabited.
“We live in a world that’s made up of bits and bytes, DSL and T1. Everything is transient. Nothing lasts,” he told Colorado Sun editor Dana Coffield in 2005 for a Denver Post story about the lost art of letter-writing, which was published on Valentine’s Day of that year. Baas said he liked writing his love letters by hand with different colored papers and inks, and occasionally even watercolors.
“We don’t keep keepsakes anymore, and that’s what love letters are,” he said. “They put us at one point in time that we can always remember fondly, even if that person isn’t here any more.”Commenting is not available in this channel entry.