It’s not every reporter who could pull off inviting a belly dancer to make a surprise appearance at a Rockland City Council meeting.
In fact, it was just one: the inimitable Emmet Meara, who died of cancer on Saturday.
Meara, 79, worked for 30 years as a reporter for the Bangor Daily News in Rockland. He spent years after that freelancing for the paper and writing a column that made “Blue Eyes,” his girlfriend of nearly 40 years, Susan Guillette, and “Cobb Manor,” his Camden home, familiar to readers around the state.
His wit, way with words and love of baseball, canoe trips, Rockland, his friends and life in general were wildly apparent. Those qualities were with him until the very end. Just a few weeks ago, Meara, who is survived by Guillette and daughters Bridget Meara, Griffin Meara and Aran Meara, announced on social media that he was having a “farewell tour” and giving a going-away party for himself.
“So I went,” said Marci Molly, who worked with him during the 1990s as the editorial assistant at the newspaper’s Rockland bureau. “He just loved having people at his house. He loved having parties and he loved being social. Not many people give themselves a going-away party — it wasn’t sad at all. It was just endearing to know he wanted people to come and say their goodbyes.”
Working with Meara was never dull, she said, remembering one Secretary’s Day when he and the other reporters rented a limousine, bought her flowers and took her to lunch at the Samoset.
“We had the best time,” she said. “He was just that kind of guy.”
He also had a sense of humor so sharp it sometimes made life uncomfortable for his daughters when they were growing up. They remembered him playing Irish music in his car and getting out during red lights to dance a jig in the road.
“While you’re in it as a kid, you found it a little horrifying,” Aran Meara said. “Looking back, it was hilarious. … He was always trying to keep people a little off-kilter. He was good at that.”
He also had a love of drama.
“He liked to throw things,” Molloy remembered. “If I said something he didn’t like, a film canister would come winging by my head, or change. You never knew what was going to happen. He hit me right between the eyes with a nickel. He never threw another thing again.”
But none of that detracted from the fun of working at the bureau, where all the reporters covering the area congregated.
“It was this amazing place to work,” she said. “I loved it. It was the best job I ever had, and Emmet made it that way. He was just larger than life, and I will miss him terribly.”
If Meara was larger than life, the community he covered was a good match for him. When he arrived in Rockland in 1970, it was still a fishing town that hadn’t yet seen the proliferation of art galleries and fine restaurants. Thanks to Seapro, the fish rendering plant located next to the ferry terminal, the old midcoast adage “Camden by the sea, Rockland by the smell,” really meant something.
It was a gritty time and place, and Meara loved it.
“When I came to the Lime City, it was a reporter’s delight,” he wrote in a 2016 column. “Main Street windows featured more plywood than glass. The NSKK motorcycle gang routinely terrorized the city. A reporter opened district court documents like greeting cards, finding a delightful story every day … If you couldn’t find a good story in Rockland’s District or Superior Court, you were in the wrong business.”
He wasn’t. Don Alexander, a retired Maine Supreme Judicial Court justice, said that Meara was of the old school of journalism and it showed.
“He knew everything that was going on at court,” he said. “He was just on top of everything. He knew the judges. He knew the police … he was so informed. He really got along with everybody.”
No matter what the subject was, Meara could get the story. Sometimes, he even made the story. Longtime Rockland reporter Steve Betts described an unforgettable City Council meeting that took place in July 1983 at the old Rockland City Hall. A lot was happening: Councilors were considering banning dogs on Main Street, and people were fired up about it. Council chambers were packed, Betts said. It was also the 30th birthday of the Portland Press Herald’s Larry Ouellette, and Meara and some of the other reporters who palled around together decided to make it spectacular.
Meara put a turban on Ouellette’s head so the belly dancer could identify the birthday boy.
“You heard music in the hallway. This woman comes in, dancing suggestively, in front of Larry,” Betts said.
Chaos ensued, which Meara wrote about (entertainingly, of course) in a 2012 column. An attendee stood up and made a pronouncement.
“‘You know, I haven’t been to a City Council meeting in 10 years. If I had known it was like this, I would come a lot more often,’” Betts recalled the person saying. “I wrote a story about [the meeting]. It was just too good.”
Not everyone was thrilled, Meara wrote, including his editor, who said that further exploits would cause him to lose his job. There was also the Columbia Journalism Review, which gave him a dart — for bad judgment — for the episode.
But Meara could not be squelched. That same year, astronaut John Glenn’s daughter came to Rockland to drum up enthusiasm for her father’s presidential run. She spoke to reporters outside on one fateful day when Meara couldn’t bite his tongue.
“She was all bubbly, talking about her dad and talking about how she loved being in Maine because of the smell of the salt air,” Betts said. “Emmet interrupted her. ‘Are you crazy? That’s the smell of the sewage treatment plant.’ She was speechless.”
That’s something that Meara almost never was, his colleagues and family said. He kept up a fierce presence on Facebook until the very end, often railing about politics and what he saw as the decline of journalistic integrity at some national outlets.
“Integrity is something that meant a lot to him,” Aran Meara said.
That was clear in his own writing, according to Letitia Baldwin, a former editor at the BDN.
“The bottom line is, he was a really good newsman. He was not afraid of anyone. He certainly was not intimidated by anybody,” she said. “He could really write about anything under the sun.”