Reporter John Day ends long career at NEWS > Washington columnist retires after 40 years

As Bangor Daily News reporters go, John Day was louder than most. His booming baritone nearly always preceded him on his ritualistic Election Day forays into the newsroom. A trench coat draped over his shoulders and briefcase in hand, he would swagger into the office with a splash…
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As Bangor Daily News reporters go, John Day was louder than most. His booming baritone nearly always preceded him on his ritualistic Election Day forays into the newsroom. A trench coat draped over his shoulders and briefcase in hand, he would swagger into the office with a splash of bravado – the quintessential image of a political reporter working the beat in Washington, D.C.

After today, the Bangor Daily News and its editorial pages are apt to be a little more subdued. John Day’s huge voice will be gone along with his weekly columns that have been part of a career spanning nearly 40 years.

Like many of the best people one meets in the newspaper business, Day would tell you there was never a morning he didn’t look forward to going to work at the BDN. It was a work ethic he brought with him in 1963, the year he arrived at the paper fresh out of the University of Maine.

As Day prepares to hang up his journalistic guns, he still recalls the first time he ever saw his byline on Page One.

“The Hoe Presses started up slowly and pretty soon the entire building was shaking,” he said. “Someone handed me the paper – it really was hot off the press. I had to be careful not to smear the ink. I saw my name out front. What an adrenaline rush. It felt good as I walked off into the night, lugging that newspaper under my arm. But I knew the next morning I’d be onto something new.”

Day’s first assignment took him to Washington County to run the paper’s Machias Bureau. Overseeing a dozen local correspondents who filed random reports on baked bean suppers and Grange hall meetings, he settled in quickly to his new coastal surroundings that would become the backdrop for the great tragedy of his generation: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“I guess everyone knows where they were at that moment,” he said. “I rushed to what was then Machias State Teachers College. I watched a roomful of college kids sitting in a lounge openly weeping. I didn’t want to be there. I’ll never forget it.”

Within a few months, Day was back in Bangor, working on the City Desk for legendary city editor Ki Ayoob. Day watched downtown Bangor re-create itself through the Urban Renewal Program. He covered the expansion of Dow Air Force Base to its 1966 peak and was there to write its epitaph two years later.

When Kent Ward left the State House Bureau to become State Editor in 1971, Day jumped at the chance to cover state politics.

“I was told by the AP bureau chief in Augusta that I had some big shoes to fill, that everyone down there liked Kent Ward,” Day said. “The implication was they weren’t going to like me as well.”

It was more than an implication. Democrats on the far left and liberal special interest lobbyists didn’t appreciate the columnist’s conservative leanings and soon came to despise Day. Even though he hasn’t worked in the State House for more than 20 years, there are still some old political hands who are convinced Day is the antichrist. At Bowdoin College, political science professor Christian Potholm has enjoyed a long association with the columnist. He said many of Day’s run-ins with Democrats stemmed from the politicians’ inability to accept someone who wasn’t 100 percent on their side.

“The complaints against Day came from people who were more used to dealing with tame reporters who take what they say at face value,” Potholm said. “Nevertheless, John’s columns were not politically correct and he was particularly harsh on Joe Brennan. To anyone who was a loyal Brennanista, harshness toward Joe was unforgivable treason. And they didn’t forget it.”

Day believes he treated Brennan fairly. He argued that in 1978, he tried to convince the BDN to endorse Brennan’s bid for governor. That didn’t happen.

“Paul Reynolds [the BDN’s conservative editorial writer at the time] jumped on me and said, ‘We’re not going to endorse Joe Brennan,”‘ Day said. “I thought I had a cozy relationship with Joe. Well, we weren’t buddies, but I liked him.”

Former House Speaker John L. Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who has just been elected to the state Senate, was mildly amused by Day’s recollections of his State House days. He agreed with Potholm’s characterization of Day as a reporter who more often than not enjoyed being a player in elections by developing stories that potentially could determine the outcome of a political race.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a Democrat during the ’70s who did not feel John Day was carrying out the mission of the editorial board of the Bangor Daily News,” Martin said. “He was certainly not an individual whom I would hold in confidence because I knew anything I told him would end up in print.”

The year Brennan was elected to his first term, the NEWS offered Day the job that would define his career: Washington, D.C., bureau chief. It would also be the year he received the Maine Press Association’s Journalist of the Year Award – the first time the honor was bestowed on a reporter.

Day arrived in the nation’s capital during President Jimmy Carter’s midterm and watched President Ronald Reagan’s revolution unfold. It was during the Reagan years that a chance encounter placed Day on the cutting edge of the Iran-Contra connection, a White House backroom deal that threatened Reagan’s presidency.

A friend of Day’s had invited him to go to Costa Rica where two American mercenaries were locked up in jail for smuggling arms into Central America. Two years before their identities would become household names during the congressional Iran-Contra hearings, major players in the scheme jumped out at the BDN reporter.

“They told us they worked for Jonathan Hull, a CIA operative, and that his boss was a lieutenant colonel in the White House National Security Agency named Oliver North,” Day recalled. “We knew this was a big story. It was history happening before me, starting in a Costa Rican jail and ending with calls for Reagan’s impeachment. That was probably the biggest story I was ever involved with.”

Bob Tyrer, longtime aide to U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, has been friendly with Day for 25 years. He said the reporter’s innate and instinctive sense of a good story was widely known among Maine’s congressional delegation.

“He was friendly with people in both parties but was not afraid to skewer his friends or praise those he was less friendly with when the facts of the story dictated,” Tyrer said. “John loved politics, and his love came through in his stories and columns. His sources trusted John to get it right, which is why so many major political stories in Maine over the years broke in the BDN and not elsewhere.”

Through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, Day survived by embracing change. Even the way he filed stories changed dramatically, from the early days of gluing together sheets of typewritten copy to most recently attaching photos to e-mailed dispatches using a laptop computer. Day was determined to roll with the punches.

In a career of economic ups and downs, his greatest reassurance came from knowing he was working for a family-owned newspaper. He enjoyed a warm relationship with former publisher Richard K. Warren and later, his son, Richard J. Warren, the current publisher of the Bangor Daily News.

“The owners were always in the building,” Day said. “They provided me with the opportunity to do the things that I enjoyed. Given another chance, I’d do it again 10 times over.”

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