'Big Woe' made Tri-Cities a better place for everyone

Bob Woehler was many things to many people: a wine writer, a Kiwanian, a community advocate or maybe just a byline on a story.

To us, he was Big Woe.

To us, he was family.

As a reporter, Bob was the quintessential newsman. That started in the 1950s at a radio station in Omak, when he was "the voice of the Okanogan," and continued when he moved to the print side of the news business.

At the Tri-City Herald, Bob covered many beats, even running our bureau in Hermiston for a time.

We called him Big Woe for a number of reasons. First was his size. His large, 6-foot-6 frame and his deep, sometimes gruff voice could be physically intimidating. When he wrote a story, he attacked the keyboard by stabbing at it with his index fingers. When he wanted a story, he was relentless in his pursuit.

His nose for news was legendary in the Herald newsroom. And that lasted well beyond retirement. The day before he died, he called us with a story tip he wanted us to follow up on. Knowing Bob's news sense, we always followed up, and those stories often landed on the front page.

He also was notorious for his spelling -- sometimes proving his last name could be difficult even for him. At Bob's retirement, executive editor Ken Robertson replaced the front of a dictionary with a fake cover and the title, "Words I've Misspelled, by Bob Woehler."

He was equally infamous for his photography. He started in the news game at a time when staff photographers were a luxury rather than an important specialty, and he was rarely on an assignment without his camera.

Often, he didn't want to get out of the car to take a photo, and sometimes rear-view mirrors marred his pictures. We fondly referred to them as "Bob Woehler Drive-By Shootings," though he was quick to point out he won a number of awards for his photos.

He always took the ribbing well -- and gave it back with a big, friendly grin.

When he took over the agriculture beat, he found his true calling. In 1976, he was assigned to cover the grand opening for a winery north of Pasco, Preston Premium Wines.

Back then, Washington's wine industry was in its infancy, with only a few producers.

But something clicked with Bob, and he had a vision for what might happen. In 1978, he launched his Tri-City Herald column, "Woehler on Wine," which he continued to write until last year -- long after he retired in 1994.

While other writers were discovering Washington wines about the same time, Bob was on the front line of a burgeoning industry.

On a daily basis, he walked the vineyards, talked to winemakers and sampled their wines, good and bad.

And when he wrote about them, he always looked for something good to say. While he wasn't necessarily an advocate for the wineries, he was their voice, and he helped direct his readers toward wines he thought were worth trying.

Today, more than 17 years after he retired, wine industry veterans fondly remember him for the way he used words to direct a generation of wine lovers.

And there was a side to Bob that few saw.

As a Kiwanian, he proudly served his fellow citizens, most visibly by helping at and organizing the Kennewick club's work selling and taking tickets at the Benton Franklin Fair & Rodeo (this week was the first time in decades he didn't make it to the fairgrounds).

He was fiercely -- if quietly -- patriotic. He served his country in the Navy during the Korean War and stayed in as a reserve until retiring as a lieutenant commander. And he loved his family even more, always putting them first and often telling stories about how proud he was of his children and grandchildren and their accomplishments.

He helped at Kennewick High School reunions and served at the East Benton County Museum because he understood the importance of a community's roots and was on parks boards because he knew quality of life is vital to our future.

We have a thousand stories we could tell about Bob, and many will undoubtedly be shared at his memorial service Saturday.

His mark on this community is indelible, and he left it a better place than he found it. For that, we owe him our gratitude, our thanks and our love.

We will miss you, old friend.

* Editor's note: A service is planned for 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Desert Lawn Memorial Park in Kennewick.

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