If You Ran A Small-town Weekly

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It was three in the morning, two days after St. Patrick’s Day, 1958, when I disembarked from a Greyhound bus and stepped into the snowdrifts at the entrance to the Kennebunk Inn, in Kennebunk, Maine. A startled night clerk called the police; he could conjure no other service that might help me go the final mile of my trip in a snowstorm. My journey ended when I said good night to patrolman Frank Stevens, slammed the cruiser door, and entered the cottage where Sandy Brook waited for his new partner.

Together we were embarking on the most popular dream in American journalism: running a small, country weekly. And like so many who have sought to live that dream, we came from cities and we arrived without experience as publishers or editors or small businessmen. About all we brought with us was desire.

Left behind was an odd and surprising occupational mix. Sandy’s most recent employ had been on Wall Street, where he worked in a sugar-brokerage office. He had earlier spent a winter in Sag Harbor, Long Island, where he went to try to write a book and worked instead as a free-lance reporter for the Sag Harbor Express . Before that he had been a jute buyer in India, and throughout his career he frequented racetracks, where he developed his never-perfected system for making a killing on the horses.

I had come from Dayton, Ohio, where I had been an assistant to the vice-president for advertising and public relations at the Fyr-Fyter Company, manufacturer of extinguishers, but had spent much of my company time writing free-lance articles for the Kettering-Oakwood Times , a suburban weekly started by some friends who encouraged my work. In preparation for that stab at journalism, I had worked as a full-time commercial fisherman for seven years before I quit cold turkey and emigrated to Ohio. My stay there had lasted just a year. My yearning to see water again and to get away from Midwestern landscapes and back to a Yankee coast was excruciating. I had written just about everyone I knew, including Sandy—an old friend from Long Island whom I’d seen now and then during my fishing years.

I told him the only work I enjoyed was the part-time reporting for the K-O Times; he told me the only occasions on which he’d felt exhilarated were when he won a racing wager or saw his copy in the Sag Harbor weekly. The horses, he said, had not come in often enough to keep him animated.

As for newspaper work, he had a thought. As a boy he’d spent summers in Ogunquit, Maine, a small, graceful village at the southern end of the state’s convoluted and dramatic three-hundred-mile coast. He’d always wanted to go back. He’d heard from an Ogunquit artist friend that the Kennebunk Star was for sale. Did I, Sandy asked, when he called in response to my desperate letter from Dayton, want to follow him to Maine and try newspapering again, this time as the Star ’s editor?

I’d never been to Maine, never edited a paper of any kind, but I said yes with alacrity and began selling furniture to finance the trip.

Sandy, using the creative wheeling and dealing he had learned on the Street, signed a contract to buy the Star for a thousand dollars down. My share of the payments that the bank demanded every month were to be deducted in advance of any salary. In retrospect, remembering that both Sandy and I were married and had two young children, the gamble we took made horses look like a sure thing.

But I felt only excitement, not a shred of anxiety, when I opened the door to the Star to begin my first working day, just a few hours after my snowy arrival. At Sandy’s suggestion and with my agreement, I was titled the “editor” and Sandy the “publisher,” although neither of us was quite certain about the range of duties each classification entailed. I did know, however, that publishers dealt with business and financial matters, and even I would never have granted myself those responsibilities. I couldn’t balance my own checkbook.

Yet I could take a great deal of pleasure in contemplating my new career. I can still remember that first early morning, as the sun reflected from the snow blanketing the town’s main street—a thoroughfare I could see most of from my office window. The scene was so typical of a coastal community of some five thousand souls, so purely New England, that it would have been quite enough to delight and reassure me. But there was more. The former owners of the Star had sold us everything on the premises, including an antique rolltop desk, and a Remington typewriter that looked as battered as any I’d ever seen in movies like The Front Page .

I looked at that typewriter, and fantasized about the editorials I would write, the ideas I would conjure, the public good I would generate. I did that from eight until eight-thirty. Then Sandy arrived to brief me on the realities of our situation. My happiest moments as a country editor had ended.