One of the great attractions of the national conferences of the American Copy Editors Society, ever since the first at Chapel Hill in 1997, has been the opportunity to meet the grandees of editing. This week the ranks of the grandees have been seriously diminished with the death of Bill Walsh, his life cruelly cut short by cancer at fifty-five.
His first editing workshop, twenty years ago, was marked by the intelligence and good sense that was to be found at his blog and in the three books he eventually published. He seemed a little stiff then, and it was a delight to see over the years how he grew in ease as a presenter, more and more of his sly, dry wit on display.
We learned quickly, when we drew up the conference schedules, to put Bill Walsh in one of the big rooms, because whenever he spoke, he filled the room. He showed that editing was more than the mechanical application of a stylebook, that the nuances of language demanded sensitive attention, that editing could be itself a creative act in collaboration with the writer.
Bill was widely and deservedly admired. He and I differed occasionally on minor points (the idiomatic could care less among them), but I found myself agreeing with him ninety-nine percent of the time, which was greater agreement than I ever found with the Associated Press Stylebook or H.W. Fowler.
He was an ornament to The Washington Post as a copy editor, and at ACES he showed us what the best of us could hope to achieve. We wanted to hear from him for at least another decade, but now one of the most sensible, best-informed, most entertaining voices among us has been silenced.
The signal quality I associate with him, his learning and humor aside, is his generosity. Everything he learned, everything he knew about language and editing, he willingly shared, and shared abundantly with his colleagues, and all of us are in his debt.
ACES convenes in St. Petersburg, Florida, in a week for its twenty-first national conference, and the absence of Bill Walsh’s name on the schedule will be a troubling gap, a loss that cannot be restored.
I do not think that I will be alone there when I lift a glass to an absent friend.