Wade Goodwyn, longtime NPR correspondent, dies at age 63
NPR has lost one of its singular and most recognizable voices. Longtime National Desk correspondent Wade Goodwyn died Thursday of cancer. He was 63.
For more than 25 years, Wade reported on his home state of Texas and the southwest United States, covering top stories including the Oklahoma City bombing, school shootings, hurricanes, the American Sniper murder trial, and the Boy Scouts sexual abuse scandal.
"For generations of public radio listeners, including me, he was one of NPR's iconic voices," said NPR CEO John Lansing in an email to staff. "Aside from that instantly recognizable voice, Wade was a uniquely gifted storyteller and a brilliant reporter. From the first words of one of his stories, you always knew you were being taken on a journey by a master of our craft. You were in for a true treat, whatever the subject matter.,"
His keen writing and "big, deep, rich voice"
Wade's soothing bass had a way of pulling listeners a little closer to the radio. A profile once described his voice like "warm butter melting over barbecued sweet corn." But Goodwyn argued that his writing is what really mattered. And he was right. If his voice pulled you in, his way with words kept you listening. For instance, this memorable line from his coverage of Hurricane Rita in 2005:
"In Louisiana, you hug your NASCAR teddy bear when the big blow comes, even if you're a barrel-chested National Guardsman."
"You know Wade was a poet," says NPR senior editor Steve Drummond. "The little detail, the little color or sound that he'd seen out in the field, and it just made what he said sparkle."
Drummond says that skill for observation — combined with his big, deep, rich voice — made it a pleasure to listen to Wade on the radio, even if he was delivering bad news.
"He was just an amazing storyteller," says Drummond.
Drawn to radio and its storytelling
Radio storytelling is what pulled Wade Goodwyn into journalism. He'd been a history major at the University of Texas, a natural field of study for the son of noted historian Lawrence Goodwyn, who had been active in the civil rights movement and wrote books on grassroots populism in America.
Out of college, Wade left Austin to work as a political organizer in New York City. There, he got hooked on NPR member station WNYC. He told Current in 2016 that he was so absorbed by the voices and stories he heard, he decided to pursue a freelance public radio career back home in Texas (where the rents were more affordable).
He started freelancing for NPR, and was assigned in 1993 to cover a high-profile story — the standoff between the federal government and cult leader David Koresh in Waco, Texas.
"As a wintery dawn broke over the central Texas landscape on Feb. 28th, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms rushed through their preparations for the assault on David Koresh and his followers in the Branch Davidian compound," Goodwyn reported on Morning Edition. "Heavily armed cult members were waiting for them a few hundred yards away."
It was the first of countless tragic news events Wade would bear witness to — mass shootings at churches, schools, and military bases; the Boy Scouts sexual abuse scandal; and, right at home, the ambush killings of Dallas police officers in 2016.
"It's been a very rough day, the roughest day the city has had in some 50 years," he told Morning Edition, likening the mood to the aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination.
He had a knack for politics, doing profiles over the years of a host of rising political stars from Texas — among them George W. and Laura Bush, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Dick Cheney and Beto O'Rourke. He reported on the rise of the Tea Party, covered the Enron financial scandal and trial, and remembered the wit and wisdom of Molly Ivins.
Some of his most rewarding work was breaking news
One of his biggest stories was the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when domestic terrorists set off a truck bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing and injuring hundreds, including kids in a day care. He was reporting live from the scene on NPR's Morning Edition in less than 24 hours:
"I think it's trite to say a community is hit hard by any disaster, but this small- what is really a small Midwestern town — has really taken the tragedy very hard," he reported. "Especially the deaths of these children seem to have shaken everybody."
He stayed to track the manhunt and arrest of bomber Timothy McVeigh.
"He was really good at infusing humanity into those situations that sometimes people just want to turn away from," says Vickie Walton-James, a managing editor at NPR. She says Wade brought a distinctive voice to the network's breaking news coverage.
"He was able to put you in the place and to help you understand what had happened to someone and what the broader implications were," she says.
"He wanted to get people the help that they need and he wanted to help right wrongs," says Walton-James.
"My two big dogs, Miles and Rosie, came running into the room with stuffed toys in their mouths to demonstrate just what fine guard dogs they were. Miles jumped up and gave James Lee a big smooch right on the lips. 'Come on, guys, leave the man alone,' I said. 'Get out of here.' Woodard stopped me, saying, 'No, I love dogs.' 'I guess it's been a while,' I said, regretting the words as they came out of my mouth. Woodard teared up. 'Twenty-seven years,' he whispered, as he got down on both knees to play with Miles and Rosie. I stood there a while and watched and then sat. 'Take your time, Mr. Woodard,' I said. 'The interview can wait.'"
Finding and elevating seldom-heard voices
Wade Goodwyn lifted voices that sometimes get lost in the media landscape, leaving a lasting impression for many listeners. A 2017 story about a Dallas street choir composed of homeless singers performing at Carnegie Hall brought listeners to tears, according to their responses on NPR's Facebook Page.
"This was such a beautiful story," commented Rebecca Kinder Lahann. "I was crying as I was listening."
"Am I the only NPR listener who appreciates Wade Goodwyn's radio voice?" asked Irene Tomaras Supica in comments on the story.
No, Wade had a bit of a cult following among listeners who loved the way only he could spin a tale, ever eager to share Texas cultural gems and bits of forgotten history and folklore like a remembrance of sharpshooter Joe Bowman, who Wade said "was so good with a single-action revolver, he could turn an aspirin into powder at 20 yards ... could take a playing card, set it on edge, and peel it in two with a single bullet."
Spanning three decades with NPR, Wade Goodwyn gave voice to much joy, and also much trauma. Even a cancer diagnosis didn't derail his commitment.
"Wade covered a hurricane in August 2020 in the midst of a pandemic," says Walton-James. "He was covering the Boy Scouts scandal. He wanted to be in the mix. He wanted to do as much as he could. That's just the kind of spirit that he had."
As he reflected 25 years later on the toll of the Oklahoma City bombing, Wade gave listeners a glimpse of what it was like to consider all that he'd seen.
"When I tried to record the narrative for the story, describing the bagpiper playing 'Amazing Grace,' my throat closed up at that part, and I couldn't go on. I told the recording engineers to give me five and then try it again. To my frustration, I choked up a second time. Eventually, I got through it. But someone must have called my editor, and a few minutes later the phone rang. 'It's time to go home,' he told me. 'No, no,' I insisted. 'I need to stay. I think there's other conspirators.' He was having none of it. 'You've done a good job, Goodwyn. Go home to Texas.' And so I did."
Wade Goodwyn is survived by his wife, Sharon, and two daughters, Hannah and Sam.
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