BELFAST, Maine — From a “dirty bomb” maker’s homicide to an elementary school hostage crisis, from the chicken and fish processing days to the economic revitalization of midcoast Maine, Walter Griffin has seen — and written about — it all.
After 33 years of filing stories on deadline for the Bangor Daily News, the Waldo County reporter is putting away his notebook, effective today.
“The most amazing thing about this job is how receptive people are to talk with you,” Griffin, 64, said this week while reflecting on his beat. “With all the people I’ve known over the years in law enforcement and other local officials, I’ll miss the daily interaction with them. It makes it seem like more of a social activity than work.”
Griffin, who will continue to reside in Belfast, said he plans to relax and enjoy his retirement and hopes to head south to the Washington, D.C., area to visit his grandchildren.
The western Massachusetts native was working in community development in Rockland when he started working as a stringer for the Bangor Daily News.
When a job opened up in 1977 for a part-time reporter to cover the news of Thomaston and St. George, he was hired and worked out of the Rockland bureau under Bureau Chief Ted Sylvester. Griffin’s curiosity and wide-ranging interests served the paper well, said Editor-in-Chief Mike Dowd.
“Few reporters possess the kind of versatility Walter has displayed throughout his career,” he said this week. “He not only covered topics from A to Z with his sharp, economical writing — he often took photos that really forced the reader to linger.”
Griffin has won awards from the Maine Press Association over the course of his career, including a 2009 continuing story award for his coverage of the December 2008 homicide of James Cummings, a Belfast man who was found to be accumulating a cache of explosive materials and directions to manufacture a “dirty bomb” and who allegedly had been planning to use it at President Barack Obama’s inauguration last January.
“He broke that story,” Dowd said. “That story showed he used all of his amassed knowledge and reportorial skills.”
Those skills didn’t go unappreciated by the midcoast residents who considered him something of a one-man reporting institution.
“He’s been a really witty writer,” said Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley. “He’s an old-school newspaper guy. He’s had a great work ethic, and I think he’s done great for the Bangor Daily News.”
BDN Publisher Richard J. Warren said that Griffin has been a “valuable contributor” to the paper.
“I appreciate the dedication and professionalism he brought to his craft, his tenacity in pursuing stories, and his connection to the coastal communities he covered,” Warren said in a prepared statement. “He has been the ideal bureau reporter, and he will be missed. I wish him well in his retirement.”
Griffin said that out of the many stories he has written, a couple are unforgettable. One was the Unity fire in 2000 that killed 6-year-old triplets and left Waldo County Sheriff Robert Jones, a friend of Griffin’s, dead of a heart attack.
“The community itself was just devastated,” he remembered. “It was a rough week or two.”
The other story that has stuck in his mind — and craw — is the time when Griffin boarded the USS Thorn in Searsport Harbor during coverage of the annual Fling into Fall festival in October 2003. The avid baseball fan planned to report that story, then drive to Boston to attend a Red Sox playoff game, but that’s not what happened.
“We were out there a short time when a gale came up,” Griffin said. “It was unsafe to let us off the boat.”
Seven hours later, Griffin was finally back at his car — and the game had already begun.
“I haven’t gotten over it yet,” he said, only half-jokingly. “That was a great game.”