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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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Norman Runnion in 1989, as he looked as he headed into his final year at the helm of the Brattleboro Reformer. Runnion died on June 19 at age 85.

Voices / Memoir

A newspaperman who instilled love and fear

In memory of Norm Runnion, who gave me my life in Vermont

RANDOLPH T. HOLHUT has been a news editor, reporter, photographer, and general consigliere for The Commons since 2010. He served two tours at the Brattleboro Reformer, from 1989 to 1995 as a sports reporter and from 2004 to 2010 as a copy editor and editorial writer.

Brattleboro

It is no exaggeration to say that I owe a lot to the late Norman Runnion, the managing editor of the Brattleboro Reformer who brought me to this town in 1989.

Norm gave me my first full-time newspaper job and salvaged my career.

Norm gave me my life in southern Vermont, a place I love dearly.

And most of all, Norm gave me the chance to meet Joyce Marcel, then a fellow reporter at the Reformer, so I could have more than 25 years with a great love, a great writer, and a great friend.

It didn’t look like any of this was coming my way, as 1988 ended with me in the unemployment line. I had just gone through my first newspaper buyout. The Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette had been sold two years before, and changes were in the works.

I was thrown overboard immediately, but I was young then and without responsibilities.

What still haunts me is how my mentors were treated — this tribe of men and women who started out newspapering in the 1940s and 1950s, when newspapers were king, and the work that reporters did was the stuff of movie legend.

I looked up to them, and learned all I could from them. It was heartbreaking to see how many of the T&G’s veterans chose to take a buyout and leave journalism rather than stick around and face an uncertain future. That was my first lesson in how heartless the newspaper business can be.

I thought I might not ever again get a chance to be a newspaper reporter. As it turned out, my time on the dole was short.

I answered a want ad seeking a sports reporter for the Brattleboro Reformer. I never thought I would get an interview, since I had never been a sports reporter and never had a full-time job at a newspaper.

But Norm Runnion called and invited me to come in for an interview. He took me to lunch at the Mole’s Eye with several other staffers and conducted the first part of the interview over Mexican food.

I found out one reason Norm had invited me was because one of the clips that I sent him was a feature story on a section of East Brookfield, Mass., known as Podunk. The great Broadway showman George M. Cohan, who spend his summers there, popularized the image of Podunk as a dull, insignificant little town. He was impressed that I knew the real story of what Podunk was.

That was when I learned my first lesson in newsroom management. Norm hired writers. He didn’t care about by-the-book experience. If you could write well, he wanted you on his team.

I also learned that he was an editor who didn’t like staying in the office. He would always go out to lunch and gather fresh gossip and news tips along the way. He was someone who reveled in his power to set the news agenda in Windham County and beyond.

If you were a candidate for public office, you had to talk to Norm. If you had business plans or a project to be done, you had to talk to Norm. I soon learned that Norm and his paper were loved and feared in equal measure.

* * *

I saw that up close in 1989, when the Reformer was in the thick of two big issues in Vermont.

There was a proposal by the Champlain Pipeline Company to build a 339.3-mile underground natural gas pipeline from Highgate on the Vermont border to West Medway, Mass. The pipeline would have been the biggest construction project in the state since the Interstates were built, and it would have carried gas to Boston through some of the most environmentally sensitive areas of Vermont.

Some of the most vehement opposition came in southern Vermont, and the Reformer both reflected and amplified that criticism. The opposition whipped up by the Reformer’s reporting and Norm’s editorials was intense enough to stop the project cold.

Then there was a proposal to build a 15,000-seat stadium at Stratton Mountain Resort for the Volvo International Tennis Tournament. The event drew many of the top players in the world to Stratton and was a popular warmup event for the U.S. Open.

Gov. Madeleine Kunin and Secretary of Development Elbert “Al” Moulton supported the project. Norm felt it was just another sign of what he called “Strattonization,” the lavish new construction at Vermont’s ski resorts designed to attract the wealthy to their mountains. Norm was sensitive early on to the issue that Vermont was becoming a two-tier state with the well-off at the top and everyone else at the bottom.

Norm’s editorials played a big role in the tournament organizers deciding to cancel their plans and move the event to New Haven, Conn.

Maybe the act that epitomized Norm’s fearlessness happened the year before, in 1988, when he published the letter of a rape victim on the front page. The woman was so angered by what happened to her, and the indifference of the police and other agencies, that she wanted to go public with her story.

No other newspaper, to our knowledge, had ever done this. To this day, victims’ names are mostly withheld. But Norm said he believed that people needed to know that crimes like this were happening in Brattleboro, and to be enraged rather than embarrassed by them.

* * *

Norm was a managing editor straight out of central casting. Born in Kansas City, the son of a newspaperman, he earned his stripes in Chicago and other Midwest outposts before joining United Press International and spending more than a decade covering some of the biggest stories of the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was the guy who was running UPI’s Washington desk when John F. Kennedy was shot.

So how the hell did he end up in Brattleboro?

Burnout.

After you’ve written about the space program, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of a president, and the Civil Rights Movement, what else is there to do?

In Norm’s case, it was to come to Windham College in Putney. But he got restless and wanted back into the business. John Hooper, then the editor and publisher of the Reformer, hired Norm in 1969. Norm became the managing editor a couple of years later when Hooper retired.

Norm quickly put his stamp on the paper, and anyone who ever worked for him can recall him vividly.

He cursed creatively and with flair. His standard order to his reporters was “don’t fuck up” (or noli te futuere in Latin, the inscription we put on the back of our sweatshirts we made for his retirement party, marking us as graduates of what we called the Norman Runnion School of Journalism).

He could throw a temper tantrum that could bring a reporter to tears in the morning and be over it by the evening. He hired great people and gave them the space to create. At the same time, he had a very clear idea of what his newspaper was going to be and what needed to be done to create it each day.

Dot Grover Read, who worked in the Bellows Falls bureau when I was at the Reformer, summed up Norm in this Facebook post: “He was cranky. He was funny. He was an egomaniac. He was compassionate. He was entertaining. He was frightening. He cut to the chase. He rambled. He knew his stuff.”

“He was your favorite uncle,” Read wrote. “He was your worst nightmare. He was my friend and my mentor, and he will be missed by so many.”

* * *

The year I had with Norm was his last at the Reformer, and it was a hard one for him. He was under increased pressure to tone down his act and be more responsible with the newsroom budget. The era of the bloodless bean counter had arrived, and the bean counters had no room for guys like Norm.

When he chose to retire in 1990, the community knew it was losing a great newspaperman. At the reception marking his retirement, the line of well-wishers stretched out the door of the paper.

After he left the Reformer, he enrolled in the Virginia Theological Seminary. He received a master’s degree in 1993 and was ordained as an Episcopal priest.

“When people ask me, ‘Why did you go into the church?’ I answer, ‘God,’” he told the Washington Journalism Review in 1990. “I used to say, ‘Because God wanted me to do penance for being a journalist for 40 years,’ but I stopped. People were taking me seriously.”

After he was ordained, Norm came back to town to speak to the Windham World Affairs Council. He was unsparing in his criticism of newspapers and what he called their “growing ineptness” caused by “the corporate obsession with the bottom line” and a lack of ethics.

“Publishers don’t want to take risks, because risks may cost money and not bring in profits,” he said. “And a surefire way to cut costs is to avoid taking any kind of risk.”

* * *

That explains why Norm Runnion supported the efforts to start The Commons when the first meetings were held 10 years ago. The Reformer he created no longer existed, and he threw his support behind the dreamers who thought an alternative paper was needed.

He didn’t stay around long, but Norm’s imprimatur was important in the early years of this paper. As one of the founders of The Commons, Barry Aleshnick, wrote, “Norm Runnion advised us way early on, before Vol. I, No. 1, and his presence was formidable, honorable, and powerful. His Brattleboro newsroom is what we always had as our standard, what we envisioned this paper ought to be.”

That was the spirit that we’re still trying to keep alive at this paper — like the Reformer that I walked into in 1989 — a paper that’s fearless, informative, and filled with life and creativity.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #312 (Wednesday, July 1, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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