Editor DeWayne Bartels dies at age 53

Linda Smith Brown
DeWayne Bartels

Long-time newspaperman DeWayne Bartels died of a ruptured brain aneurysm on Friday morning, July 27, at his home in Peoria.

Bartels was 53.

According to his wife, Melody Bartels, Bartels was found on the floor of their bedroom with his laptop computer.

He was probably working. “He would often get up in the middle of the night and say ‘Oh, I’ve got to do this,’ ” and get on his computer, she said.

When Melody awoke Friday morning, she initially didn’t see her husband. Since he wasn’t in bed, she went to the adjoining bathroom looking for him, then she went outside the house.

“It was raining just a little bit,” Melody recalled. “Sometimes he liked to just sit outside and watch the rain.”

Not finding him, she returned to their bedroom and saw him on the floor at the foot of the bed, with his laptop. He was unresponsive. “He must have been sitting on the bed and just fell over backwards off the end,” she theorized.

“DeWayne was one-of-a-kind,” said TimesNewspapers Executive Editor Jeanette Kendall. “He was at work at 4 a.m. and had the enthusiasm and passion of 10 employees. He loved a challenge and was a true newspaperman.”

“I worked with DeWayne for 17 years and I will truly miss him. I am very saddened by this grave loss and I feel for his family.”

 Bartels was a reporter in this area for more than 22 years, having started his professional reporting career in 1989 with the Tazewell News in Morton. The Tazewell News was owned at the time by the Tazewell Publishing Co., which has since become TimesNewspapers, owned by GateHouse Media.

Bartels was both reporter and editor at the Morton newspaper before moving to the company’s Peoria Times-Observer, where again he was a reporter and editor. When the Observer ceased publication in May 2010, he was named editor of the newly created Woodford Times. Earlier this year he was named editor of the East Peoria Times-Courier.

“DeWayne was so excited to become the editor of the East Peoria Times-Courier. He was having the time of his life,” Kendall said.

Bartels was known for writing personal columns, hard news stories and human interest stories.

He first worked in newspapers as an advertising account executive with the Pekin Daily Times and later moved to Kewanee, where he was general manager of the Kewanee Kost Kutter.

The career of DeWayne Bartels started out much differently. After graduation from Pekin Community High School, he initially attended Illinois Central College to study electronics. “Then he got into Mike Foster’s journalism course and he came home and said he wanted to be a writer,” Melody recalled.

While at ICC, Bartels was editor of The Harbinger, the college’s student newspaper; on the Dean’s List and the Vice President’s List in 1988 and was the ICC Student of the Year in 1989.

Bartels was known amongst his peers as a prolific writer, an ardent filer of Freedom of Information Act forms, a mentor, and a passionate journalist. Invariably friendly and ready to laugh, Bartels often enjoyed “pulling people’s chain,” whether in the office or in his personal columns.

Bartels never took it personally when his newspaper received angry Letters to the Editor following one of his columns provoking ire.

“One of his favorites was from a man who asked ‘Are you naturally stupid? Or do you take stupid pills,’ ” Melody recalled.

Although self-effacing,  Bartels was serious about the stories he covered.

“His newspaper and his people were his life,” Melody said. “He cared about every one of the communities he covered. It gave him satisfaction finding the truth. Don’t step on the little man. He’d be the first out there, finding the truth.”

Bartels was so dedicated to journalism, he could not turn it off, even in the midst of personal loss. While living in Morton, the apartment building where Bartels and his family resided caught fire. As the building burned, along with the family’s personal possessions, Bartels was walking the scene, with notebook in hand, covering the story of the fire.

At one point, Bartels was a part of a story, when an elderly woman wandered away from a Morton nursing home. Search crews were out looking for her. Bartels announced to his wife “I’m going out looking for her. I don’t want to be the one who didn’t look and she dies,” said Melody.

“DeWayne went down a steep ravine and he found her, lying in some water, with her head just enough out of the water to keep her from drowning. DeWayne picked her up in his arms and carried her up to the road and he put her in an ambulance,” she said. “When the woman’s brother came up to the ambulance, one of the fireman said, ‘This is the man who saved your sister’s life.’ The man thanked DeWayne and then when DeWayne asked him for a comment, the man asked ‘Are you a reporter?’ DeWayne said yes, that he was a reporter and then the guy hit him. He said ‘I don’t like reporters.’ ”

“DeWayne always laughed about that,” she said.

The Chicago Tribune ran a story, dubbing Bartels “The Rescue Reporter.”

Bartels gained national attention as a result of his eight-year investigation into the story of Henry Lee Lucas, an accused serial killer on death row in Texas.

Bartels helped prove Lucas was innocent of the murder with which he was charged. In 1988, then Texas Governor George W. Bush, while running for president, commuted the Lucas sentence.

In pursuit of the Lucas story, Bartels appeared on the Montel Williams show and was part of an episode about Lucas on American Justice on A&E titled, “The Myth of a Serial Killer.”

Besides the thousands of stories Bartels wrote during his career, his wife said he also loved writing columns about his children. Over the years, readers got to know about Little Princess (Brandy), Child X (Wesley) and Underwear Boy (Dustin), the couple’s three children.

But the columns got the most attention for his constant references to “The Little Woman,” his wife. In the era of ardent feminism, some readers felt a need to rail against that frequent moniker.

“Everybody copped an attitude about that,” Melody said. “But when we got married, I was 4-foot, 11-inches and weighed 86 pounds. I had no problem being called The Little Woman, because I was.”

The Little Woman was just 14 years old, when she met the 16-year-old Bartels at a Bible study. They were married for 32 years.