Monday, January 5, 2015

Our time at the Ontario Argus Observer

By Larry L. Lynch

Don Lynch fidgeted in the straight-back chair facing his Royal upright and placed his wire rim glasses on a pile of copy paper to the typewriter’s right. He sat surrounded by stacks of notes, clippings and old newspapers --- saved for story ideas and background.

Lynch leaned forward, closed his eyes and used his long fingers to massage his temples. At thirty-seven, he looked almost handsome despite his slightly asymmetrical cheekbones, a carry-over from the polio he suffered as a youth. He had a full head of wavy hair, a twinkle in his eye and usually displayed a half smile that showed off his dimples.

The other desks crowded into the front office of his twice-weekly newspaper, The Ontario Argus-Observer, were vacant. Lynch had saved this quiet Saturday morning, August 30, 1952, to find the right words to explain to readers why he was starting a personal, front-page column. The simple truth was that he wanted to do it and his news editor, Hugh Gale, was still on best behavior. It would be months before Gale would begin putting the phone down on a particular country cousin correspondent and walking away while she droned on.

The name Lynch chose for the column, “The Argus Observes,” almost selected itself, given the name of his newspaper. The mythological Argus, Lynch would explain to readers, had one hundred eyes, thus its use for newspapers. What’s more, it slept with only two eyes closed. Still, the name had its shortcomings. The Greek Argus failed had failed as a bodyguard, the assignment that made it myth-worthy. Bored by a lengthy bedtime story, the monster fell totally asleep and was slain.

Lynch knew it would be a mistake to come off in his new column as overly impressed with himself, but after five years and nine months as editor and publisher, he’d grown sure of his place in town. He wanted to “write easily” about his experiences and ideas using the “informality of the first person.”

For more than five years, as I passed through high school and on to college, my father did just that, aptly commenting on life in a small western town in the 1950s.

For the previous five years, he had run his newspaper under the close guidance of a veteran partner, Bernard Mainwaring, whose large bald head and vigorous physical presence was matched by a dominating personality and equally impressive intellect. My father once observed that his older partner, who avoided alcohol, had “little understanding of the inclination of others to drink because he was two drinks ahead of the average guy all of the time.”

Mainwaring owned the daily Nampa, Idaho Free Press when my father went to work for him in 1944. The Nampa publisher found something special in the former meter-reader reborn as an ad salesman and sports writer. After two years, Mainwaring decided to stake his salesman to a half interest in a weekly newspaper, one of two then serving Ontario, Oregon, population about 4,200.

Before Mainwaring and my father purchased it, The Argus had settled into a deep slumber that hardly noted the changes going on in town. In one of his last columns, the former editor and publisher made fun of himself in print for driving through a newly installed stop light on which he’d reported the week before.

Another sign of the lack of activity occurred one weekday afternoon in the fall of 1946. While my father and Mainwaring sat for two hours in the weekly’s office haggling over the details of the purchase, the phone remained eerily silent. That silence drove Mainwaring to distraction, but it didn’t scare him off.
My mother, my brother Dennis, and I rarely saw my father during the first four months of the new operation. That was the time it took to locate and buy a small, white clapboard house on a tree-lined street of mixed homes with an ample scattering of vacant lots four blocks southwest of downtown Ontario. At first, the three of us were stuck without a car in a massively ugly and cold grey stone rental house in nearby Payette, Idaho. Our wait was only relieved on Thursday afternoon when my father drove us to Ontario to join the madhouse of publication night.

I liked the smell of the mix of old newspapers and ink that pervaded the tiny store-front newspaper plant, but I hated the racket the machinery produced late on the evening of publication day. A printer stood on a platform at the side of a huge roller atop a two-page press feeding sheets of paper into place. To produce a four-page section, the operator turned the paper over, exchanged the forms holding the pages of lead type, and sent the sheets through a second time. On each revolution the press roared as the roller spun on its axis, then groaned when it reversed directions, and roared again. When the press run was far enough along that my father fired up the folder, its sound added exponentially to the cacophony, clanging away, folding and stuffing the printed sheets into something that resembled a newspaper--- when it didn’t shred them.

This was our quality family time. Women enjoyed my father, and he returned the favor. His appeal rested mainly with his ability to flatter them by listening intently. On these evenings, however, he forgot that compulsive diversion of his. And my mother, a short, striking, dark-haired dervish put to good use the work ethic she absorbed growing up on a dairy farm near Caldwell, Idaho. On these nights our parents accomplished something together.

From the outset, The Argus’ new owners planned to convince the publisher of the town’s other weekly newspaper to sell out. Mainwaring provided the operating cash for my father to undercut ad sales for that paper, the Eastern Oregon Observer, by practically giving away ad space in The Argus. They also arranged for The Argus to be delivered to everyone in town, whether paid subscribers or not.
My father’s patience with this approach began to wear thin by spring, however. He’d learned that everyone in town seemed to read the paper even though almost no one would buy ads.

Then, as he tried to keep up the pressure on the Observer, a piece of luck presented itself in the form of an editorial mistake.

Harry Peterson, a town patriarch who ran a furniture store at the other end of Oregon Street from the old Argus plant and also operated a local funeral home. One morning as my father walked through town to make a call on Peterson, he mulled over a new problem. He’d heard that Peterson was steaming because The Argus printed the wrong time for a funeral, and people around town were calling to complain.

“Harry, I’m sorry, that was a mistake,” my father shouted as he entered the store and climbed to the top of the stairs leading to Peterson’s desk, where it overlooked the furniture displayed on the floor below. “But if this mistake is so important to our readers, how is it that we don’t have any value as an advertising medium?”

From that time on, Peterson’s furniture store advertised in The Argus. Other merchants followed his lead and began to buy paid space.

That summer, the competition with the Observer came to a head. Compared with The Argus, which traced its first publication to 1896, the Observer was an upstart. Elmo Smith, an acquaintance of my father’s from Smith’s college days in Caldwell, had started the paper late in 1936 and had made a success of it, becoming a power on the local scene. He served as Ontario’s mayor during part of World War II. But by 1946, he was ready to move on. He sold the Observer that December to Jessica Longston, who also owned the St. Helens (Oregon) Sentinel-Mist as well as a newspaper and radio station in Burley, Idaho. As part of his deal with Longston, Smith had agreed to run the Observer for a limited time. Eight months later, with the competition wearing on both papers, something had to give. Mainwaring offered Longston more money than she could make by continuing to operate The Observer, and she agreed to sell. The Ontario papers were combined into one beginning in September 1947. Elmo Smith soon bought another paper in John Day, Oregon and began a career in state politics.

Through the decade my father operated the Argus-Observer, his biggest business headaches involved how to keep a back shop purring with country printers and unreliable equipment. Press breakdowns were commonplace, even after a refurbished, high-speed eight-page press was installed in a new building. The turnover among printers was even more maddening. They’d walk in the door looking for work, be assigned a stone-slab work table for assembling type, turn out a few weeks of decent ads and printing jobs, then collect their checks and disappear.

And yet the worst problem my father ran into with a printer was quite the opposite.

Before the end of this printer’s first week, the back shop foreman discovered he had to position the new guy at a make-up bench far away from every other employee and especially far away from a particularly cranky linotype operator. The guy smelled so foully of drink and bodily filth that no one could stand to work close to him. This printer required cash for his work on a daily basis. If he was paid weekly, he’d be broke within a day or two. Even so, the foreman wanted to keep him on the job until someone who could replace him walked in the door.

It didn’t work out that way. My father’s patience ran out when the printer missed a day of work but didn’t realize that he hadn’t shown up. He disrupted the entire office with his insistence that he receive the money for two days when he had only worked one.

The odiferous printer came from Yakima, Washington, so my father bought him a ticket for home, packed him a lunch, took him to the bus station, handed the ticket to the driver, and watched the bus pull out with him aboard.
He then called the printer’s wife to tell her that her husband was on his way: “She wailed, ‘Why did you have to send him home?’ She thought she’d gotten rid of him for good.”

At the end of 1952, Mainwaring sold his interest in the Argus-Observer to my parents to help finance his purchase of the Salem, Oregon Capital Journal. My father used “The Argus Observes” column of February 5, 1953 to pay tribute to the man he described as “at least a near genius as a newspaper publisher (and) the nearest thing to a genius of any one I have ever known.”

He noted that Mainwaring impressed people by acquiring a depth of information along specific lines and using it freely in conversation. He never smoked, never drank, and during the war went “careening all over Nampa on a bike, pell mell like a 25-year-old kid....I have seen him take a highball to avoid awkward explanation and then pour it down a sink or set it aside at the first opportunity. However a stranger at a cocktail party might think him the life of the party because his animated voice can be heard above the hubbub of others.”

My father believed in the value of child labor. I began working at The Argus when I was eleven, hauling bundles of freshly inked newspapers to the bus depot, drug stores and coffee shops, and riding my bike to small neighborhood groceries. Downtown I usually covered on foot. I gathered up an order or two and headed out of the back door of the plant, past a one-room cement jail that sat behind city hall. Occasionally, I stopped to jaw with a drunk still stuck inside come late afternoon. By the time I was in junior high, I picked up an extra dollar now and then by making cigarette runs for the guys drying out in the old jail. One day a printer saw me making the exchange, and reported it to my father, who put a stop to the arrangement.

By 1952, my father had fallen in love with the news side and would have been overjoyed to devote himself to it full time. But he knew that the business depended on him to sell the ads that brought in the money that made the newspaper financially viable.

Meanwhile, self-proclaimed news editors frequently walked in the front door without notice to inquire about a job. If one didn’t drop in at the right time, they were easy to procure through a help wanted ad in the industry bible, Editor and Publisher.

The turnover at the editor’s desk came to an end for three years during the summer of 1952. My father hired Hugh Gale, a veteran reporter, as news editor. Gale provided the time my father needed to begin his front-page column. And Gale provided me, at an impressionable age, with an intriguing example of what a newspaperman could be like.

To function well as a country editor, my father reluctantly conceded, it was necessary to have not only a little flair but also to be self assured enough to go your own way, despite what some of the townsfolk might say or think of you. Hugh was maybe the most independent --- certainly the most addicted to hanging out in the local bars --- of those who came along. He also possessed the ability, perhaps too rarely used, to charm most anyone with a gruff compliment. He was a pudgy, gnome-like man with a bushy shock of light, grey-streaked hair hanging over a florid face.

When he was going good, he sat hunched over his typewriter at his desk facing a long window looking into the back shop, using the nicotine-stained middle and index fingers of both hands to pound out stories.

Hugh kept his distance from the society editor at one end of his row of desks and from the two women behind him, the bookkeeper and circulation manager who took care of the front counter. But that didn’t stop the women from taking an interest in him. They learned that he was married but had left his wife in Washington, and they began to ask him repeatedly when his wife would arrive.

“My wife is a very, very large woman,” he said. “I doubt that anyone here is going to welcome her.”

When his wife walked into the office for the first time some months later, she proved to be petite and beautiful. Or, as my father used to say, “I’m really not sure how a guy who looks like Hugh and drinks like a fish ever got such an attractive woman to live with him.”

At the time he was hired, Hugh was warned “that sometimes the news was sparse and it took hard digging to get out an interesting paper,” my father wrote in a January 5, 1953 column.

“After a few weeks, he asked what I meant by dullness… The news seemed plenty active enough for him. In his first month… a man burned to death in a trailer house fire, there was a Grade A public row over the failure of the school board to rehire two teachers, the Malheur River flooded and then the Owyhee really flooded --- all on top of an active situation in school district, city and county news and plus the regular flow of the news.

“But in the in the dog days between the Fourth of July and the county fair he found out what I had been talking about. He almost walked a hole in the tile on the office floor trying to dream up stories good enough for the top front page positions.”

As time wore on --- and this was obviously related to why his wife took some time to follow him --- Hugh’s lifestyle began to impinge on his productivity.

“He is always late,” my father complained as summer turned to fall in 1954. Years later, in one of a series of pieces he wrote as part of an effort to syndicate a column about being a country editor, my father recounted the workplace sins of an anonymous “reporter we had once’’ --- who might have been easily identified by readers in Ontario:

“The talented but unstrung reporter came to work so late so often that finally I had to tell him, if he was ever late again I’d expect him to just ask for his check without waiting to be fired.

“After that, when he was out very late at night, he’d park his car in front of the office before he went home. About 9:30 the next morning, he’d come running in the back door with his hands full of notes, as if he’d been on an early morning news assignment at the city hall. He’d rush up to his desk and begin typing furiously, never looking up.

“It was easy to tell that he hadn’t been awake 15 minutes. However, even though he was an hour late, it was earlier than he’d been coming to work. So I let him think he was fooling me.”

Earlier, my father had played a different tune on his typewriter keys when Hugh actually moved on July 21,1955 to run his own newspaper in Kirkland, Washington.

Opening his column with the admission that he hated to see his editor leave “more than I had thought I would,” my father noted that Gale had “worked at the news with the abandon of a volunteer fireman. He was forever getting up at daylight to photograph the blowing of a gas well strike, or flying off to Jordan Valley to a cattlemen’s convention, or taking a rangeland tour to study the problems of range management. He took jaunts of this kind almost every week, generally on his own time.

“And he got around. He lived with the men in the street and the farmers in the fields. He made it his business to know what was going on in the community, what the average citizen was thinking. There is no substitute for this intense interest in society and not many news men have the quality in the degree possessed by Hugh Gale.”

After Hugh’s departure, my father put his column on hold. But he revived it in early 1956, and the timing of its return was less than accidental. A subject presented itself that my father badly wanted to write about --- the rise of his old acquaintance Elmo Smith to the job of governor. On January 31, of that year Oregon Gov. Paul Patterson died of a heart attack. As president of the State Senate, Smith succeeded him.

Less than a month later, my parents visited Eugene for a social event with the Smiths. Returning home, my father published a column describing how “the governor took off his coat and shoes, loosened his tie, flopped on my hotel room bed in Eugene. He looked beat from his first 17 days as governor of Oregon.”

Some of Smith’s friends in the Ontario area were concerned that the man they knew as Elmo would change under the pressures of his new job.

My father suggested they “needn’t worry.” At an evening cocktail party with old friends, Smith had “trotted around the lobby with his hands jammed in his pockets, his shoulders hunched forward, his coattails flying, his hat pushed to the back of his head, and one hand periodically raising in that ‘hi’ salute, a mannerism that is uniquely his. He looked almost exactly like he did peddling ads on Oregon street ten years ago.”

During the following months, my father threw every ounce of editorial support he could justify, and some he couldn’t, into helping his friend win election to the governor’ post that November. But it wasn’t to be. Smith lost to the Democrat, Bob Holmes, a radio station manager from Astoria.

My father never admitted as much to me, but knowing the restlessness that was brewing in his soul, I’m almost certain he hoped that a Smith victory would mean a job for him in the new administration in Salem, a chance to get away from the newspaper --- and from family demands --- a least for a while.

The next May while I was off at college and my brother was in high school, he announced that he had turned the publisher’s job over to our mother so he could take a position helping to manage classified ad sales at The Statesman newspaper in Boise, Idaho, 65 miles to the east.

“This change was only possible,” he wrote in his May 23, 1957, column, “because Mrs. Lynch was willing to assume the rather demanding job of being editor and publisher of The Argus-Observer….

“In this particular case the wife is better qualified to manage the newspaper than she realizes. She has been closest to its problems for a long time, and has worked at all of the tasks required --- reporting, advertising and accounting. This is a broader background than my own because I couldn’t do the accounting.”

Time proved my father correct about my mother’s publishing skills. She whipped the staff into the kind of shape that increased profits year over year until 1963 when she decided to sell because neither one of her sons was interested in returning to Ontario to help her out.

My parents divorced and my father went on to a long career as a newspaper business manager, editor and writer. But he never again found work that was quite as satisfying. Late in life, he tried to develop a book out of his columns for the Ontario newspaper, but he couldn’t make it work. “All that old newspaper stuff and Ontario stuff as I wrote it in the rough draft would never be read today,” he concluded in a letter to me, written May 10, 1995 at the age of eighty. He then willed me his papers in the hope that I could re-direct the material “to the interests of today’s audiences.”

And in a draft introduction to the book he would have liked to write, he summed up his experience quite simply yet eloquently:

“A half century ago we had outlived our time mechanically. We were still using the same method of inking a raised impression and pressing paper against it that Gutenberg had worked out 500 years earlier. We were still printing with stinking-hot melted lead, clanking linotypes, and noisy presses. Even so we still had a sort of built-in community influence that is now as out of date as a horse and buggy. It was 45 years ago when I got in on the final years of that ancient world. I was one of the last of the old-fashioned country editors. What a privileged way to start a lifetime of journalism.”


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