SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — The height, the hair, and the hat caught your attention.  But it was the voice that really made a difference, in print or in person.  Walt Shepperd was proud of his work teaching inmates and validating their writing.  “Aww, your punctuation is terrible.  You misspelled a word,” he once told a reporter.  “I don’t worry about any of that.  I want the story.”

For generations, Walt Shepperd was a voice for the voiceless in Central New York.  He tackled politics, human rights, community issues, and the Arts for the Syracuse New Times and other newsweeklies for most of the last half-century…  Always keeping an eye on the underserved. 

Syracuse Jazz Fest founder Frank Malfitano called Shepperd a friend for more than fifty years.  For a time, they worked together at the New Times.  “You know, Walt was consistent.  I mean, he was always on the right side of the issues and the right side of history,” Malfitano says.  “He was there for women’s rights, he was there for LGBTQ rights.  He was there for civil rights.  You know, we marched together.”  Malfitano says it was Shepperd who asked him to help launch the Jazz Fest in 1981.

Walt Shepperd came from New York City to go to school at Colgate, and he stuck around.  He taught on college campuses, in high schools, and in prison yards.  He read his poetry at Lincoln Center and the Auburn Pen.  He edited and published a book, “Born Into a Felony,” the first national anthology of contemporary American prison writing. 

Photographer Michael Davis covered hundreds of stories with Walt over more than two decades working together for the New Times.  “He wasn’t just this raving crazy hippie,” says Davis.  “He was an intelligent, thoughtful, caring person that thought more about what went on around him than he himself.”

Shepperd’s greatest legacy will likely be The Media Unit, the non-profit broadcasting and theatre troupe he founded for high school students.  The kids provided the storylines, drawn from their own lives.  Walt worked tirelessly to win support from local businesses, media, and government grants, and wherever he could to build a cable TV studio and stage shows they took to city parks.  He never took a salary for himself.  As a teenager, city councilor Joe Driscoll spent a short time as a member of the troupe.  By many accounts, Shepperd was a taskmaster with the students, but Driscoll saw kids’ lives turned around.  “Just learning in the arts, you know, as a life lesson for later on, that you know if you want to get to it, you got to pick up your shovel and get to work, and Walt definitely demanded that of everyone who was with him, you know?”, Driscoll says.

For nearly 50 years, it seemed like Walt Shepperd was everywhere and knew everyone.  And he walked everywhere.    “It was a way to gather material and meet people and be part of the community, but he never drove, never really drove. “He was a New Yorker, and I gave him many, many, many, many rides,”  says his friend Michael Davis.  “You know, one of Walt’s phrases, as he got up at the end of the day, was, “Anyone headed east?  That meant Walt needed a ride.”

Walt Shepperd died Wednesday afternoon May 11, 2022, with his daughter Lorca by his side.  He was 81.