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Originally published Tuesday, May 31, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Gutsy TV newsman was one of a kind, say Seattle colleagues

Mr. Don McGaffin was a newsman of a sort rarely seen these days. Tough, gritty, yet with an impish quality, he bristled with intensity and...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Mr. Don McGaffin was a newsman of a sort rarely seen these days.

Tough, gritty, yet with an impish quality, he bristled with intensity and indignation over injustice, fighting for everyday people in his years as a reporter, commentator and consumer advocate for KING-TV in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Called a character and a "reporter's reporter" by friends and colleagues, he was a man who, if born a few years earlier, would have worn a hat with a press badge tucked into the hatband.

Mr. McGaffin, who died Sunday at age 78 after a fall in his Magnolia home, played a major role in what many now regard as the heyday of broadcast news in Seattle.

"He helped people realize that television could be a pretty powerful player in journalism," said Charley Royer, a former Seattle mayor and KING newsman.

Mr. McGaffin, who spent his childhood in White Plains, N.Y., displayed mettle and a mind of his own from early on. He joined the Marines at age 17, fighting in the Korean War.

After the war, he entered journalism, wanting to tell stories. After stints at news outlets in California, Mr. McGaffin came to Seattle, landing first at KOMO-TV, then KING.

It wasn't long before his name came to stand for saying or doing something totally unexpected. "He'd go into a room and say something that immediately shocked everybody, almost bordering on the bizarre — but always with a twinkle and a warmth," Royer said.

The KING newsroom back then was a family of rough-and-tumble, intense and competitive people. Before evening newscasts, said Elaine Perkins, a former KING sportscaster, some reporters regularly gathered in Mr. McGaffin's small office to smoke and drink a little Wild Turkey bourbon, arguing boisterously over current events and politics.

"Listening to them was like overhearing the smartest people in the room," said Perkins.. "You were proud when you contributed a little bit, got to be part of the group."

Julie Blacklow, a former KING reporter, recalls coming to KING when she was 24 and one of a few women in the newsroom. Mr. McGaffin walked by her desk one day and leaned over to read what she was typing. He promptly pulled the page out of the typewriter, tore it up, and said: "It's not good enough; do it better."

"He was my everything," Blacklow said. "He was my friend. He was my teacher. He taught me how to write well, how to approach stories, how to think about storytelling."

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Equally important, he taught her how to be brave while working on controversial stories.

"He was tough. He was fearless," Blacklow said. "He taught me what our job was: to serve the people."

Mr. McGaffin uncovered political corruption and was one of the first consumer advocates in the country; his story on deaths caused by flammable children's nightwear led to legal changes.

Another time, he uncovered a list of prominent Seattle citizens whom the Seattle Police Department considered enemies and kept files on. The list of names — which Mr. McGaffin read on the air — included himself, Royer and several City Council members.

Mr. McGaffin had two strokes — one around 1985 and the second around 1999 — that made speaking difficult. Former KING reporter Perkins considered it "the cruelest irony that the most verbal, funniest person I knew had trouble speaking."

Mr. McGaffin's den in his Magnolia home is filled with Emmys and other awards he won, and photos of his journalistic experiences, said Mimi Sheridan, a historic-preservation consultant who lived with him for 18 years. There is a photo of him golfing with Arnold Palmer; another from the time he was kidnapped by guerrillas in El Salvador (Perkins' theory on why the rebels released him: "I think he just kept talking. ... He was so obnoxious they gave him back.").

To the end of his days, Mr. McGaffin showed the traits that defined him, Sheridan said: passion and generosity and a real interest in people that led to longlasting friendships with people from all walks of life.

"He had intense loyalty to his friends," said Bob Simmons, a former KING colleague. And "he was the gutsiest, grittiest person I ever met."

In addition to Sheridan, Mr. McGaffin is survived by two sisters and a son, all on the East Coast. Details on funeral services, to be held at Butterworth Arthur Wright, are pending.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

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