April 07, 2020

Time to take down column photo

I have a confession. Big time, as Dick Cheney would say. John Day hasn’t looked like the photograph over this column since Ronald Reagan was president. (See congressional ID badge reprinted nearby.)

I plead absence. Throughout most of my 37 years as a reporter – 29 of them as a political columnist – I have worked outside the home office of the Bangor Daily News. I”m the newspaper’s only employee not based in the state of Maine, kind of an election year drop-in ghost. Increasingly, my visits back to 491 Main St. have evoked nostalgia and memories of co-workers, retired or gone. I will join them after this column.

I’m proud to say I worked my entire career for a newspaper owned by a Maine family. We are a vanishing breed. Once there were more than 2,000 like us. Today, just 325 of the country’s 1,020 dailies have local owners.

I’m going to recite one of those lists you see during going-away parties, one that mentions all the fine people who put up with me for all these years – and let me assure you, I was a high-maintenance worker bee.

I’ll start with fellow Sugarloafer Bud Leavitt. For years, the departed great one boasted of a secret shortcut that enabled him to roar back to work for the Sunday graveyard shift always 15 minutes ahead of me. It took decade, but I finally located Bud’s unmarked farm road off Route 2 leading to I-95, thereby skirting the Newport triangle.

One of my first editors was Kalil Ayoob, the Dartmouth-educated language tyrant who correctly termed me the worst, probably of all time, speller ever hired by the Bangor News. And not that good with grammar and the other writing skills, either, a point repeatedly made by English teachers who have written to me over the years. I apologize for not responding. Why take a second chance on embarrassing myself.

There is Bob Taylor, a character straight from Ben Hecht’s “Front Page.” The equally colorful Jimmy Byrnes and Ed Matheson, our paper’s retired night-crawling cop reporter; Ed McKeon, who was a pretty good city hall reporter before going into economic development; and David Bright, the computer maven who got me fired as editor of the Maine Alumnus magazine for glorifying his activities as leader of the state university’s first SDS chapter.

Joe Brooks, now a politician, who greeted me when I first walked into the BDN city room in June 1963 with words to the effect I shouldn’t be so full of myself because I was a college graduate. Jack Loftus, one of our best photographers but a mediocre softball player; and his shutter-bug contemporaries, Spike Webb, Carroll Hall and Danny Maher, who rued the day he talked me into flying with him for a photo shoot over Mt. Katahdin – it took them a week to clean up the plane. Englishman Ken Buckley, a true original.

I could write a book about Kent Ward. Two years before we actually met they told me he was a barrel-chested guy with a crew cut who was a maniac about baseball. In my first assignment as Washington County bureau chief I shared a Teletype line with Ward’s Rockland bureau. We could view each other’s work on its way to Bangor. His copy always was mistake free. Mine looked like something typed by a 10-year-old.

“Well, isn’t that the great American novel?” he put onto my machine during transmission pauses. When I replaced him in Augusta as State House correspondent Dave Swearingen, the AP bureau chief, took me aside and said I had no chance of filling Kent’s shoes. He was right.

Mel Stone, the managing editor who sent me to Washington, D.C., in 1978 never told me it was a temporary assignment. My old job had already been filled by Davis Rawson, who took down my photographs on the wall of the Augusta bureau and sent them back to me with a note that said, “Day, I’m sick of looking at your girlfriend.”

“Don’t worry, John. You will be so productive the publisher will have to okay a full-time Washington bureau,” Stone explained during a drop-in D.C. visit. That got my attention. I never worked harder in my life.

Informed that Jacqueline Sharkey, a Washington friend, wanted me to go with her to interview two soldier-of-fortune types being held in a Costa Rican jail, then-Managing Editor Paul Reynolds said, “Let me get this straight, Day! You want the Bangor News to pay for you and this woman to go on a honeymoon through South America?”

Reservations aside, Reynolds ran the idea past Publisher Rick Warren, who had met Sharkey and agreed there might be a story there. The mercenaries said they worked for a CIA operative, who was taking his marching orders from a Marine colonel in the White House named Oliver North. The story turned out to be Iran-Contra, which I followed through the hearings. With hindsight, it’s clear the scandal did a lot more for George Mitchell’s career than my own.

Apologies to Reynolds, Mark Woodward, Dick Shaw and Todd Benoit, for dealing with my unrelenting bullying attempts to force a 28-inch-column into their 20-inch opinion-page hole. And to news editors Jeff Strout and Rick Levasseur, for the many dinners they missed because I always waited until the last minute to transmit my stories. Deadlines are my danger pills.

Admiration and thanks to librarian Charles Campo and his hard-working assistants for digging out the stuff I couldn’t find anywhere else. And to Nancy Remsen and Julie Murchison, two of the finest lady journalists I know. For Wayne Reilly, the investigative reporting team leader who always steered me back to substance when I overdosed on cheap sensationalism.

Respect and admiration for A.J. Higgins and Emmet Meara, the BDN’s bulldog Augusta team, maintaining our tradition as Maine’s best State House crew. Sympathy for Darlene Henderson, who proofreads my expense vouchers, otherwise known as Day’s most creative writing. Fond memories of the union guys in our press and mailing rooms. Don’t see much of them anymore. They’ve moved to another building. As softball opponents, they couldn’t hit, run or field, but they did toss down cold beer and pizza with the best of them.

To many more who can’t fit into this column.

I think the public still is fascinated with journalists, even as they tell pollsters they don’t believe us as much as they used to because we’ve become arrogant, abusive and take political sides while claiming to be objective. The rancor over the presidential election has made it worse.

I figure I’ve written about 1,750 columns, where I shoot my mouth off; and another 15,000 to 20,000 news stories, where I tried to keep my opinions out of the paper. Sure, I screwed up. More than once. But I never wrote anything I didn’t believe was the truth.

In that respect, I see myself a lot closer to the old school than many of my younger contemporaries. Ed Muskie and Margaret Chase Smith were Maine’s senators when I started writing about politics. John Kennedy was murdered on my last day at the Machias bureau. With one or two exceptions, I never wrote about a Maine politician I didn’t think was honest and trying to do his or her best. I’m not comfortable with the smear-your-opponent brand of journalism. That got us two wasted years with impeachment and who knows how many more, depending on which side wins the presidential election.

If I had to boil it down to one thing that lit my fire all these years, this is it:

Back in the old days, when you finished a page one story, you went downstairs and walked through the smell of lead and the loud clattering of the linotype machines to the pressroom. At 11:30 p.m., or thereabouts, the foreman threw a switch starting the three-story-high Hoe printing presses, slowly at first. And then, with a rumble that shook the building, tomorrow’s newspaper came rolling off the conveyor belt.

This was something you could hold – a piece of folded paper that was the end result of hours of hard work wrapped up in 800 or 900 words laid over eight columns, waiting to be digested by tens of thousands of Mainers over their breakfast.

My first big story was a spectacular murder Down East. A service academy valedictorian put dynamite to the camp where his wife, infant daughter and in-laws were vacationing. I was the only reporter on the scene.

After I filed the story in Machias, I took my first day off from work in a month to catch up on some shopping in Bangor. Two people in line behind me at a cash register in the old Freese’s department store began talking about the Jonesboro murders. They were pulling all their facts from my story.

God, it took everything I had not to turn around and say, “I’m John Day of the Bangor News. There’s so much more I could tell you ….”

This is John Day’s last column. He is intent on improving his golf game. His e-mail address is zanadume@aol.com.

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