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Observer Media Group executive editor, co-owner Lisa Walsh dies at 69

Lisa Walsh was a pillar in the Sarasota-Manatee community; a devoted wife, mother, grandmother, sister and daughter; and the backbone of one of the most successful media companies in Florida.

When two Secret Service agents asked then-Longboat Observer Executive Editor Lisa Walsh to back off reporting on the 9/11 terrorists, she politely declined. "We're reporters. That's what we do," she said.
When two Secret Service agents asked then-Longboat Observer Executive Editor Lisa Walsh to back off reporting on the 9/11 terrorists, she politely declined. "We're reporters. That's what we do," she said.
File photo
  • Manatee-Sarasota
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From the day she started editing the Longboat Observer to the day she handed over editing duties of the four newspapers she built with her husband, there was never a frantic rush, never a shout, never a tense flurry of activity to meet deadlines. 

No matter how late the papers to the printers or how big the story, Lisa Walsh was never anything but poised. 

It had nothing to do with how much she cared about the papers — and make no mistake, she cared down to the comma — running around barking orders or breathing down reporters’ necks to get copy just wasn’t her nature.

But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t effective. As she leaned over your desk and said, “We’re going to need that story now,” writers got the message. Despite her petite 5-foot-4 frame, perfectly styled hair and manicured nails, she was tough. And everyone knew it.

Of course, everyone knew this by the way she faced challenges — head on. She sought solutions instead of indulging in problems. She let logic prevail over emotion. And in her understated way, whether it was navigating three deadlines a week, sorting out a crisis at a nonprofit or even battling a rare form of Parkinson’s disease for seven years, she led with patience, grace and dignity.

Lisa Walsh

It was that way until the end. She died at 12:25 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 14, from complications from her Parkinson’s. She was 69. 

Walsh died at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. When her health began deteriorating rapidly Tuesday, Sept. 12, doctors gave her four to six hours to live. She kept going for 27 more.

“My mother, tiny though she was, was incredibly strong and determined and never gave up,” said Emily Walsh, her eldest daughter.

Walsh was surrounded when she died by her husband Matt and three adult children, Emily, Kate and Brian. Walsh is also survived by three grandchildren, Rhys Parry, 13; Maeve Walsh, 6; Jackson Walsh, 3; her father, David Beliles, of Sarasota and her brother, David Beliles Jr., Lincoln, Nebraska.  

On Longboat Key and in Sarasota and east Manatee County, the Walshes are most known publicly for the Observer Media Group, which publishes multiple weekly print publications, seasonal and quarterly magazines and daily news websites. 

But Lisa Walsh, based on accounts from her family and friends in Sarasota and beyond, was much more than a newspaper editor. 

She was a devoted wife, mother and grandmother, quick with advice and counsel and also quick to host and prepare a feast-worthy Christmas dinner. She was a behind-the-scenes executive, idea-generating machine and tight-knit business partner with Matt — they were married 47 years — as they and the Observer Media Group navigated the rapidly-changing media industry for nearly three decades.

Walsh was an intensely loyal philanthropist who gave time and treasure to a host of causes; and a go-to friend for many who loved to giggle with her partners-in-crime while also providing a trusted and empathic shoulder — in addition to recipes, suggestions for books and what TV shows to watch. On that last point, one of her more recent TV recommendations was Bosch, an Amazon Prime show based on the Michael Connelly novels. 

Honorees Matt and Lisa Walsh at the AJC Civic Achievement Award Dinner in November 2010.

“She was brilliant and beautiful,” said Brian Lipton, director of the West Coast Florida chapter of the American Jewish Committee, one of the organizations Lisa Walsh supported. “She was a kind lady and a class act.” 

Despite her title of vice president and executive editor, Walsh  was happy to let others have the spotlight. In the business, she let Matt do most of the talking at companywide presentations, but the two shared all big decisions. 

Every business expansion or sale, every hire or fire was discussed around the dinner table — with Lisa providing the level-headed counter balance to Matt’s passion and eagerness to grow. 

From the height of the toilets in the ladies room to the fonts of the redesigned print editions to the company’s taglines — many of which she dreamed up in her witty style — were subject to the Lisa taste test. 

Humor was a primary tool for persuasion for Lisa. In response to one angry reader who wrote a searing letter to the editor complaining about the conservative nature of the Longboat Observer’s editorial page and its incorrect bridge column, Lisa retorted: “We do apologize for the error in the bridge column, and in the future, we will keep it just like our opinion page: right.” 

Matt and Lisa Walsh at the Longboat Observer office in 1995.

Devotion to community and her friends and family were another hallmark of Walsh’s life. On the community side, she served as president of the boards of Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center and the Longboat Key Center for the Arts and on the boards of the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce and Ringling College Library Association. As the chair of galas for the American Jewish Committee, Neuro Challenge Foundation for Parkinson’s and Sarasota Ballet, she raised thousands of dollars for those organizations.

Those community activities paid off for Walsh as well. She made close, lasting friendships. Derek Billib, another longtime SPARCC board member, says Walsh was the most sensitive person of their group. “She was so compassionate, sincere and genuine,” Billib said. “When she was talking with you, she was always listening, always paying attention.”

Some friendships go back to Walsh’s University of Missouri college days, in the early 1970s. That’s when she both pledged the Pi Beta Phi sorority and met Merry Gnaegy, a fellow sorority sister, who went on to become a lifelong friend. 

Gnaegy introduced Walsh, then Lisa Beliles, to a Mizzou journalism major and baseball player named Matt Walsh, setting the pair up on a blind date. 

Walsh and Gnaegy were roommates for several years. They danced to Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” attended formal dinners, line danced to “China Grove” and hit the “Double Bubble” at the Ramada Inn, Gnaegy recalls. 

Even back then, echoing a theme in her life, Gnaegy says Walsh “always seemed put together. She had that perfect complexion that didn’t require makeup. She was smart, cute and perky, even in our standard attire of overalls, saddle oxfords and red bandanas.”

Walsh became president of the Pi Phi house in her junior year. In recent years, after Walsh became a primary financial contributor to rebuild the sorority house, the sorority named the president’s suite after her, with her name in a plaque on the wall next to the door.

Last fall, on a trip through Columbia, Missouri, Lisa and Matt stopped at the sorority house. She wanted to see the plaque for the first time in person. It was on the second floor of house — a house with no elevator.

Unable to walk because of her Parkinson’s, with Matt holding her up from behind and bystanders watching in amazement, Lisa held on to the stair railings and pulled herself up two flights of stairs and shimmied down two flights of stairs.

“I learned early on in our marriage,” Matt says, “despite her diminutive size and elegant demeanor, it was never a good idea to tell her she couldn’t do something. She had amazing inner strength and determination; always poised, never a raised voice, never complain; she would do what needed to be done, never giving up. It was that way to her last breath. A role model for us all.”


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