Heyday of midcoast reporting comes to an end

Posted Jan. 15, 2010, at 5:46 p.m.

Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end.

It was the heyday of the Midcoast Press Association, a loose conglomerate of reporters (no editors, please) from the Bangor Daily News, Portland Press Herald, Courier Gazette, WRKD radio station and assorted other publications. It was a time when newspapers really mattered and it ended officially when Walter Griffin, the Last of the Mohicans, retired Saturday night.

We hardly ever stopped laughing when we met at ground Zero, Ye Olde Coffee Shop on Main Street. We scrounged our own table and we even laughed when the coffee shop had an aborted fire bombing. The FBI expert said the whole block would have gone, if they did it right. They didn’t, of course.

Rockland was the only Maine outpost that could boast having a BDN and PPH office. It was the battleground and we won. You have to understand that when the Camden town manager called a press conference in those days, there would be five or six reporters, scribbling away. Now there isn’t even a press conference, nor reporters at the weekly “select board” meetings.

When I came to Rockland around 1970, venerable Jim Moore had been replaced at the PPH by David Himmelstein, another Mass. transplant. Himmelstein was as smart as they come and ended up writing movie scripts. His claim to fame was a White House hoax he pulled on BDN bureau chief Ted Sylvester. He somehow got some White House stationary to report that Jimmy Carter read Sylvester’s “Fish ‘n Chips” every week.

We got even by spreading all kinds of lies, like opening a new BDN office in Wiscasset, which Himmelstein dutifully told his bosses. Whenever I saw David, I would tear off down the street, forcing him to come into the office to ask where I was going. “He’s on the big one,” Sylvester would tell him, again and again.

Himmelstein was replaced by one Ted Cohen, who left Vermont in mysterious circumstances. Cohen was one of a kind, driving a “Heavy Chevy” convertible equipped with a siren and flashing lights. In an idle moment, Cohen memorized the spiel of a boardwalk kitchen knife salesman in Old Orchard Beach, which he would repeat at the drop of a hat.

He, in turn was replaced by Larry Ouellette, who was driven out of New Hampshire by an angry mob. Ouellette came to town with one of Charlie’s Angels and taught me all I know about finance. When his checkbook was out of control, he would simply start from zero, ignoring all previous transactions. ‘“Relative zero,” he called it. When it was too fried, he simply opened up a new account at a new bank. “Absolute zero” was the term for that maneuver.

Sylvester loved to beat the PPH and took great pride when he drove the enemy out of town. Beating the tri-weekly Courier Gazette, however, was “like kissing your sister,” he once opined.

The night I met Courier reporter John Selmer Larsen, we stood on Main Street and a woman in the car drove by and gave him a familiar obscene gesture. “Don’t even know her,” he said.

His boss, John Hammer, focused heavily on barroom athletics and he won every pool and dart tournament that Dick Libby could dream up at his cellar bar, The Red Jacket, where expense checks went to die.

Dick Dooley was a Courier reporter and an honors grad from Amherst College who was always writing a book about some obscure mutiny. He did tons of research but I never saw the book.

We loved Courier reporters Natalie Slefinger and Helen Barnes, because they would always call us to party when they got their expense checks. We hated CG reporter Pete Coffey because the girls would always argue whether he looked more like Redford or Newman.

We loved Courier reporter Michael Maguire, because he was so skinny we could hang him out the second-story window by his skinny ankles. That was the night of the five-cake food fight, if memory serves.

The radio station had its all-stars, as well. Michael Gross would rip the top off a piano and start playing perfect ragtime at the drop of a hat. Who knew? John Jernigan once interrupted a Red Sox broadcast to say “hello” to Blue Eyes and I. I always wondered if his bosses heard that one.

Then there was radio reporter Jeff Nims who was doing a live broadcast from the Union Fair about Moxie, the horrible soft drink. He was interviewing someone when I walked up to the mike and said “Makes me gag.” I just assumed it was on tape.

We could have been the worst softball team of all time. But no one had more fun.

There was no place funnier than that coffee shop table. Sometimes we would let non-reporters sit down, like City Councilor Richard Warner, patrolman (eventually Chief) Al Ockenfels, barber George Black, George Burr and “Bud” Doughty because they were funny enough, all right.

We would laugh and laugh until bureau chief Sylvester said it was time to go to work, for heaven sake.

Now, the old Rockland BDN bureau is gone, along with the PPH bureau, the Courier Gazette and the Camden Herald. A lot of the old gang have been lost along the way. The rest are spread from Hollywood to Texas to Spring Hill, Fla. Griffin was the last of them. Those days have ended, my friend.

We thought they would never end.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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