Walter Backstrom, known as a political columnist and education activist in Federal Way and King County, has died. He was 60.
Backstrom died in his sleep April 22 at the Union Gospel Mission homeless shelter in Seattle. The King County Medical Examiner reported the cause of death as a heart attack related to high blood pressure.
“He was a bright guy, always in a good mood,” said Zach Hill, a supervisor at the mission who had a half-hour conversation with Backstrom the night he passed. Backstrom, who was homeless, often stayed overnight at the mission and regularly volunteered to clean up. Backstrom had no known permanent address. He used the mailing addresses of local friends for his mail and documents. Personal issues related to divorce and drug abuse may have contributed to his homelessness.
In recent years, Backstrom wrote political columns for the Federal Way Mirror, Tacoma News Tribune and Seattle Times. The outspoken black conservative wrote with gravity and grace when tackling controversial topics in education, race and politics. His column in The Mirror, titled No Excuses, included entries like “I survived Black History Month” and “A light to guide me home,” the latter describing his nights sleeping on a bus with the homeless.
At the Federal Way Mirror, Backstrom would write his columns on pen and paper, then dictate them to the editor, who typed as Backstrom spoke his words with eloquence. This process helped shape the voice of his columns, which often evoked the tenor of one of Backstrom’s heroes, Martin Luther King.
Aside from his columns, Backstrom made headlines in the past as a public official. He was elected to the Woodinville Water District board of commissioners in 1997, but attracted controversy over expenditures and residency issues. Media reports describe turmoil related to racial comments exchanged among board members. Reports from the early 1990s describe Backstrom’s unsuccessful runs for Bothell City Council and state representative.
Backstrom was born in Los Angeles. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California and a master’s from the University of Oregon. He is survived by his daughter, Aliya, sisters Tamara and Tyra, and brother Arnold, according to lacounty.gov. No memorial service has been announced.
Backstrom’s daughter, Aliya, is a student in Federal Way schools. He talked often of how proud he was of her and how much he loved her. In 2009, Backstrom helped arrange a $10,000 donation to Rainier View Elementary, where his daughter once attended. Backstrom played matchmaker between the donor, Christian Faith Center Pastor Casey Treat, and the school. The money went toward the purchase of digital projectors for several classrooms.