SCARBOROUGH, Maine — James Costello Sr., president and publisher of Sun Media Group, died Thursday morning after guiding the family-owned company in various management positions for more than 60 years.
Costello, 81, died at home surrounded by his family after a struggle with cancer.
He was remembered Thursday by his family as a loving, generous husband, father and grandfather who made his large family the center of his life.
Employees recalled him as modest and compassionate. His principles of honesty, decency, fairness and accuracy set the standard for the newspapers he led.
Costello was known throughout the industry as an innovator who computerized every aspect of the business. He directed and managed two press conversions, three mailroom conversions and several redesigns of the newspaper.
Under Costello’s leadership, the Lewiston-based company grew to include nearly 200 employees, producing the daily Sun Journal; 12 weekly newspapers, including The Forecaster; and operating a commercial printing division.
Jim Sr., as he was known to employees, was the third generation of Costellos to operate the family business. He was preceded by L.B. Costello from 1898 to 1959 and Russell H. Costello from 1930 to 1993.
Operation of Sun Media Group will continue under a team of family members representing the fourth generation of family ownership and management.
“Jim was just a wonderful person to work with for more than 30 years,” Jim Thornton, vice president and business manager for the company, said. “He was a quiet leader who built a chain of good people around him.”
Thornton pointed out that Costello took an important step for the business when he began buying weekly newspapers in 1987.
Costello, he said, had a background in the mechanical production part of the business and always made sure the company had the latest equipment.
“He read people well, and he held everything together,” Thornton said.
Gerry St. Onge said he is proud to have drawn a Sun Journal paycheck for 67 years. When the Sun Journal made a technological change, a group of employees could have lost their jobs.
“[Costello] talked to us one on one. He said, ‘I promise you a paycheck for as long as I own this place and you want to work.’
“Imagine making a promise like that today,” St. Onge, who was a Linotype operator at the time, said. “It’s been wonderful years. Working here has never been work.”
“He was the best customer I ever had,” said Norm Albert, a banking executive who met Costello in the 1970s, when Albert was working as a teller at Northeast Bank. Albert would remain banker, friend and golf partner of Costello for the rest of his life.
“He was the kind of guy who could borrow a million dollars on a handshake and always pay you back,” Albert said. “He was unbelievable, just an all-around good guy.”
Dario DiMare, a newspaper industry consultant and architect, said he has worked with newspapers all over the world, but he admired Costello more than any other publisher.
“That guy, if you look at all the family-owned newspapers, he stood out above and beyond for the way he could both love the family members he brought into the business and be firm with them,” DiMare said.
He said he has seen many family newspapers buckle under the pressure of running a business. “But I have never seen a family that stuck together, even in times of conflict, and do the right thing like the Costellos.”
DiMare added, “That’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t show up on resumes. I respect him so, so much.”
Dick Hare, a newspaper industry consultant and Sun Media Group board member, said Costello was “the most principled person I’ve ever met. He was a real gentleman and a real family person.”
Hare said it is unusual in his experience to have so many family members involved in a newspaper business and yet have them work harmoniously together. “Jim managed to keep that together with, of course, the support of his wife, Janice.”
Hare said Costello struggled to keep the Lewiston Evening Journal alive, even as the trend tilted toward morning newspapers. In 1989, Costello merged the Evening Journal with the Daily Sun into a virtually new morning paper called the Sun Journal.
He made good investments in the newspaper product, he was active in New England newspaper associations and he was in the forefront of technological improvements, Hare said.
“He was my good friend,” Morley Piper, former executive director of the New England Newspaper Association, said.
“He was also the consummate newspaperman, with a keen eye for the business side and a penchant for leading-edge technological advancement. He carried on the family newspaper business, quietly expanding it and developing it into one of the newspaper industry’s most successful family-held properties.”
In 2009, Costello was inducted into the Maine Press Association Hall of Fame.
Costello began working at Sun Media in 1952 as a member of the press crew and in the composing room. He was named production manager in 1960, general manager in 1979, publisher and treasurer in 1983 and had been president and publisher of the Sun Journal since 1993.
In 1983, Costello started a Sunday edition of the Sun Journal, making it the first newspaper in Maine to offer color photographs and graphics.
Costello was a past president and board member of Tri-County Mental Health, St. Mary’s Hospital, Marcotte Nursing Home and Tri-County Health Planning Board.
An Army veteran of the European Theater from 1956 to 1957, he served on the boards of Northeast Bank, Northern Utilities Inc. and the Maine Criminal Justice Planning and Assistance Agency.
He also was a past president of the Maine Daily Newspaper Publishers Association and the New England Newspaper Association. In 2000, Costello received the Gannett Family Business of the Year award.