Leon Walczak, 61; Sage Of Washington Politics

Leon Walczak won honors for national political coverage.
Leon Walczak won honors for national political coverage. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008

Leon Walczak, 61, a retired Washington bureau chief for Business Week and a writer and editor who specialized in national politics, died March 28 of pancreatic cancer at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. He was a Kensington resident.

Mr. Walczak, known as "Lee," retired from Business Week in 2006 and then became a political news editor with Bloomberg News when the network was increasing its political coverage.

"We were green, we were just starting to do things we hadn't done before, covering politics and political Washington, and Lee was a mentor to those reporters," said Al Hunt, Bloomberg's executive editor in Washington. "He was smart, he knew a lot of people, had great judgment. . . ."

Doctors diagnosed Mr. Walczak's cancer within a week after he started his new job, but he kept working. For a time he drove to Baltimore for early-morning treatments and then drove in to his Bloomberg office in downtown Washington. He remained on the job until two weeks before his death, sending e-mails to the office from his hospital bed.

"He was a true profile in courage," Hunt said. "He never complained."

Mr. Walczak was born in Moscow to Polish Jewish parents who were assigned to the Polish embassy. His father had been a partisan fighter in the resistance during World War II and after the war was rewarded with embassy assignments. He changed his Jewish surname from Zucker to Walczak at the request of his Polish colleagues.

In the late 1940s, young Mr. Walczak moved with his parents to the Polish embassy in Washington, where his father worked as a diplomatic courier. As the father's tour was coming to an end, the family defected.

The elder Walczak took a number of jobs in the Washington area before buying several neighborhood grocery stores, and Mr. Walczak grew up "above the store" in the District. He became a U.S. citizen in the early 1960s, and he once recalled being asked on his citizenship test what U.S. holiday fell in October. "Halloween?" he ventured.

The family later moved to Silver Spring, and Mr. Walczak graduated from Montgomery Blair High School in 1963. Taking his father's advice to do what he loved and what he was good at, he received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland in 1968 and a master's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri in 1970.

He began his career in 1969 as an editorial trainee in the Washington bureau of McGraw-Hill World News, which included Business Week. He worked in the magazine's New York bureau in 1970-71, before returning to Washington. He was named White House correspondent in 1974, bureau chief in 1986 and senior editor in 1989.

"He was very tough-minded, always good about asking the tough questions," said former Business Week editor in chief Steve Shepard, who met Mr. Walczak in 1969. "He was very demanding of himself and others. He trained a lot of people with what I call tough love."

Shepard recalled that Mr. Walczak produced a number of notable stories in Business Week, including a 1994 cover story, "The Conservative Agenda," assessing the Republican takeover of the House and Senate and its dire implications for the Clinton White House.

"When Bill Clinton and the Democrats stormed to power in 1992, their anthem was the 1970s rock ditty 'Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,' " he wrote. "In the aftermath of their crushing defeat on Nov. 8, Democrats are humming a different tune, the 1960s surf classic 'Wipeout.' And you have to go back even further than that -- to 1952, to be exact -- to truly understand the magnitude of the catastrophe that befell the Democrats. . . . "

The story was a finalist for the George Polk Award. Mr. Walczak also won a first-place Clarion Award in 2002 for "Act of War," Business Week's breaking news coverage of Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Walczak was a sports car enthusiast and, in years past, an amateur race car driver who competed in his Porsche on tracks across the Northeast.

Survivors include his wife of 19 years, Maria Recio Walczak of Kensington; two daughters, Alexa Walczak and Alanna Walczak, also of Kensington; and a brother, David Walczak of Pikesville, Md.

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