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Long-time Syracuse Journalist Walt Shepperd dies at 81

Walt Shepperd, left, talks with Media Unit alums Elijah Sheridan and Tammy Reese in 2019.
Scott Willis
Walt Shepperd, left, talks with Media Unit alums Elijah Sheridan and Tammy Reese in 2019.

One of Syracuse’s most talented, colorful, and honored journalists has died. Walt Shepperd passed away Wednesday at age 81 from complications of a stroke. He’s perhaps best known for his more than 35 years as a columnist, feature writer, and senior editor at the Syracuse New Times. The alternative weekly folded in 2019 in its 50th year of publication.

In 2006, at age 65, he left the New Times for a brief stint at the City Eagle, only to return to the Times. I caught up with him shortly after he made the first transition.

"The New Times was a mission. Many people said if I hadn't been there, there were many voices in this area which would not have been represented. I felt my responsibility was to represent those voices."

Some of those voices might have reminded him of the time he attended the 1963 March on Washington in his early 20’s. Here’s Shepperd in an excerpt from PBS in 2013, the 50th anniversary of the March.

"There's a young man who was a DJ. He said, 'You know, our ancestors died for the right to vote. Now we don't vote. And our ancestors died so we wouldn't have to sit at the back of the bus. Now we sit at the back of the bus.'"

It’s probably no coincidence that “The Back of the Bus” became the name of the long running performance of the Media Unit, a non-profit teen performance and production group founded by Shepperd in 1976. He also served as executive producer.

"I am asking them to have faith that the training and exposure at The Media Unit and the connections they will have, particularly from the networking of Media Unit alums, 80 percent of whom over 30 years are in the industry, in careers."

Again, that’s Walt Shepperd from a 2006 interview with WAER. The Media Unit closed in 2019. Shepperd is survived by a daughter and a grandson.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at