Man, was Peyton Whitely a storyteller.
Over the course of his 41 years as a reporter for The Seattle Times, he wrote thousands of articles on everything from breaking news, crime and transportation to Kurt Cobain’s death and hard-hitting investigative pieces on the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Whitely died Aug. 6 of multiple myeloma. He was 75.
Three decades ago, Whitely became The Times’ first “mobile journalist” (“mojo” for short) when he outfitted his little yellow Datsun 280ZX — which, at 6 foot 4, he already had to squeeze into — with a clunky cellphone, a laptop, a police scanner, a small desk and a folding chair.
“Peyton was a gadget guy long before anyone else, certainly in the newsroom if not in a lot of other places,” said Nick Provenza, a former assistant metro editor at The Times.
The gizmos proved their worth on a Saturday in the early 1990s when Whitely learned — on his day off — that serial arsonist Paul Keller had been captured, a story all of Seattle was following. He broke the story from his car.
Whitely was convinced working remotely was the future. He wrote a column suggesting it as a solution to the region’s transportation problems — after all, why would anyone put up with traffic in the face of such an obvious solution?
He was willing to teach the art of filing stories from the field to anyone willing to learn, and he urged bosses everywhere to consider allowing it.
But his editors didn’t embrace the idea. In 2008, the year he retired, he was incredulous at still being asked to drive to the newsroom in Seattle to file a story from a murder scene two hours away.
He finally got to see his vision for the future of work play out in the months before his death, albeit under terrible circumstances.
“He was amazed we needed to have a pandemic to get what he was lobbying for all along,” said his daughter, Nancy Hacking.
Perhaps he would be satisfied to know his obituary was filed remotely.
Whitely wanted to be a photographer when he got out of college and moved to the Seattle area, said his wife of 54 years, Kris Whitely. But, with no photo jobs available at the time, he applied to be a copy editor at The Times and then quickly became a reporter.
“For years, Peyton was one of The Times’ most aggressive and prolific breaking news reporters,” wrote former metro editor John de Leon. “He had a hand in reporting some of the region’s major news stories in a career that spanned decades, first in the downtown Seattle office and later in the newspaper’s suburban bureaus.”
In 2002, Whitely was assigned to the newly reopened Snohomish County bureau with the launch of the Times’ community newsmagazine, The Times of Snohomish County.
His specific assignment was to cover the community of Arlington, an area he wasn’t terribly familiar with, de Leon said. He spent two days driving around the town, talking with people at coffee shops, gas stations and small businesses. He returned with a dozen story ideas, including one about Paul Allen quietly assembling a collection of vintage World War II aircraft.
No one would go on the record, but Whitely stuck with the story and eventually broke the news, long before Allen was willing to go public, de Leon said.
His empathy and earnestness won him interviews with survivors and victims who wouldn’t talk to anyone else, his daughter said. But by the end of his career, he believed he was suffering with something like post-traumatic stress disorder from all the tragedy he had covered.
“It really got to him in the end,” his daughter said.
One of his former editors, Janet Horne Henderson, isn’t surprised. She remembers him standing next to her desk, choked up and with tears in his eyes, telling her the tragic details of a story he was writing.
“Peyton was such a kind, gentle giant with a good heart,” former Times reporter Nancy Bartley wrote in an email. “His sincerity made him easy to talk to, and that was part of his gift as a reporter. But the steady stream of trauma took its toll on him.”
If his sensitivity and deftness as an interviewer were legendary in the newsroom, so too was his ability to write at length about those conversations.
Once, when he was moving two large file boxes from one part of the office to another, a colleague quipped, “Peyton’s delivering his latest story to his editor.” Everyone laughed, including Whitely.
Whitely was born in Duluth, Minn., and graduated from Colorado State University in 1966. It was there he met and married Kris.
She said he missed his job once he retired (he even briefly returned to the keyboard to write for the Kirkland Reporter, an easy gig for the longtime Kirkland resident). But he also loved having time to putter around, fix things and sit down to contemplate life in his Adirondack chair on the deck of the Anacortes home where he lived out his final years.
He was lucid to the end, his family said, and still telling stories.
In addition to his wife and daughter Nancy Hacking, he is survived by three other children — Colin Whitely, Scott Whitely and David Whitely — as well as his sister, Elizabeth Fisher, and 11 grandchildren.
At his request, no funeral services will be conducted. In lieu of flowers, remembrances are suggested to Christ Episcopal Church in Anacortes, Wash.