September 22, 2020

Al Southwick is still writing his column at age 100

I’m a big fan. I enjoy his columns so much that I save them.

Al Southwick is still writing his column at age 100

By John Guy LaPlante

I was re-reading one of Albert B. Southwick’s older newspaper columns.

It was entitled “40 pounds for an Indian scalp.”

It was about a harsh and authentic bit of American history. As usual, a very fine column. I loved it.

His column is published every Thursday in the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram and Gazette.

I read his column every chance I get. And look forward to the next one.

I used to live in Worcester. Now I live three thousand miles west, in California.

It’s thanks to Roger Trahan, an academic colleague at Assumption College years ago, that I get to read his columns. Roger emails them to me in batches of six or eight.

Al Southwick was in his very late 90s when he wrote that particular column.

I have dozens and dozens of them from Roger. I enjoy them so much that I save them.

Here are just a few examples:

“My ancestors owned a slave.”
“Dodge City folklore and fact.”
“Should women serve in combat?”
“The scary honey bee die-off.”
“Title IX vs. LGBTQ.”
“How to get rid of a president.”
“Flying blind and landing safely has become routine.”
“How the Census has changed.”

I want you to know that yes, Al Southwick just turned 100 a few weeks ago and is still producing that column every week.

Has announced in print he has no intention of quitting. “It helps keep me young.”

The photo at the left shows Al Southwick as a young sailor in World War II about to start flight training. He says he felt lucky to make it back home alive.

The photo at the right, taken a few years ago, shows him contemplating his next weekly column, I presume.

I buy that. In old age, regular hard mental exercise is all-important.

He then added, “I’ll keep writing it as long as the paper keeps paying me for it.”

He was being forthright. It made me smile. All these many years, writing has been his livelihood.

By the way, writing it every week isn’t just a matter of typing for an hour or two. Heck, no. Each is the result of much digging, much research, much reflection.

I know. I’ve written many myself.

And then I had another thought. I know men, and women too, who can’t wait until they can finally, finally begin collecting Social Security. Some as early as age 62. And are so blissfully happy that their working days are over once and for all.

That isn’t Al Southwick!

I’ve known him for many decades. Personally.

I’ll tell you about that in a few minutes.

First, a bit of bio. Albert B. Southwick was born on his family’s ancestral farm in Leicester, a suburb of Worcester. Went to all eight years of qrade school in a one-room schoolhouse with one teacher. Graduated high school and Clark University there.

Clark was the only school his parents could afford.

For the first two years he walked the five miles to Clark and back in good weather and bad. Finally he managed to get wheels.

Graduating, he joined the Navy and passed the tough tests for flight training, Learned to fly the B-24, a heavy bomber, and then the PBY4Y-2 Privateer.

He served in the Pacific Theater till the end of the war against Japan.

He saw heavy service and felt lucky to return alive.

Back home, he met and wed Shirley Marie Johnson. They were married 51 years, till her death.

She had served in the Navy. They both went back to college on the GI Bill. She for a master’s in social work and he in U.S. history.

He went to Brown University in Providence to get a Ph.D. in history. But he quit to become a civilian historian for the U.S. Seventh Army in Germany. He and Shirley lived there for two years.

Back in the U.S, he landed a job as a reporter for the Providence Journal. In 1952 he jumped to the Worcester Evening Gazette as an editorial writer. That ended his days as a reporter.

Before long, the Gazette joined the morning Telegram to become the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

He became part of the team of editorial writers serving both papers and then in 1968 the chief editorial writer.

He retired in 1986 after 34 years at the T&G.

But while busy as chief editorial writer, he had begun freelancing articles for newspapers, magazines, and periodicals.

He has written editorials for the Saturday Evening Post magazine and editorial essays for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and other papers and periodicals.

He has written at least 20 books.

At last count, he had four children, three grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

He has been active for years in Worceter’s intellectual, cultural, and civic life.

Now here’s how I came into the picture.

After working briefly on a couple of weekly newspapers, I landed a job as a correspondent for the T&G in Athol. It’s a small city on the far western edge of Worcester County.

The bureau chief was Steve Preston, a veteran newspaperman. He was my boss. A good guy.

I did general reporting, covering this and that. Accidents. High school games. The high school graduation. Once the annual meeting of the trustees of the local hospital. And so on.

And now this you must know. The Worcester Sunday Telegram had its very own magazine, the Feature Parade.

It wasn’t just a magazine that the T&G bought 100,000 copies of every week with its name printed on the cover.

I believe that was the circulation of the Sunday Telegram back then.

Not at all. Feature Parade had its own editor and assistant editor and graphic artist and photographer plus two full-time feature writers.

It included ads, of course.

I greatly enjoyed reading the features that it published.

It was printed every Friday evening on the newspaper’s huge presses in the basement, for inclusion in the Sunday Telegram.

And on Page 2 every other Sunday, Feature Parade published a column called “Down on the Farm.”

I read every one. Delightful.

The writer was a fellow named Albert B. Southwick.

He wrote them for several years.

I figured he was an old, old man reminiscing about wonderful seasonal happenings down on the farm.

Bringing in the hay. Milking the cows. Splitting firewood. Insulating the old house for winter. Looking forward to big pumpkins. Stretching pennies. Getting through shorter days.

Anyway, back in Athol, I happened to meet an old gentleman who was a gifted artist in a medium totally unfamiliar to me.

I had never seen “paintings” of the kind he created. And I haven’t seen any since.

Gorgeous “paintings” they were. About 12 inches wide and 18 inches high.

Please notice my quotation marks

Because he had no brushes. Used zero paint. They were not paintings as we know such.

Here’s the remarkable way he went about it. He had a supply of woods, native and exotic, in various hues.

Already he had created a beautiful frame 2 inches wide glued to a thin board 12 inches wide by 18 inches high.

On that board he had penciled in a beautiful scene of a large bobolink flying above a field of ferns and flowers.

And now with a scalpel, I believe, he meticulously cut bits and pieces in different shapes and sizes from those fine woods to build up his “painting.”

He did that by gluing them together in that frame. Then he finished by very gently sanding the surface and applying a lustrous coating of some kind.

What he had created was a masterpiece, yes, a masterpiece.

Each took many, many hours. Each was unique.

I thought he and his remarkable “paintings” would be a wonderful story for Feature Parade Magazine. So I wrote it up.

And I knew the magazine liked photos to illustrate its stories.

I was a good photographer from my time on those two weekly newspapers. I had learned to use a Speed Graphic. It was the standard camera on newspapers everywhere back then.

Steve Preston had a Speed Graphic. He used it as needed in his own reporting.

I asked him if he would let me use it to take pictures of my new artist friend at his work.

He said sure, but I’d have to split whatever Feature Parade paid me for the photos. That was a very good deal. I sent in my story and the photos.

Whoopee! Feature Parade paid me $20 for the story and $12 for two photos. I promptly gave Steve $6.

More good news. Soon I got promoted to chief of another bureau in great big Worcester County. A much larger bureau with several reporters. Darn good for my age.

I supervised the news and covered major stories. Had a camera. But on the side I continued to submit articles and photos to Feature Parade.

Frederick Rushton, the editor, snapped them up.

One day I got a call. One of his feature writers had quit. Would I be interested?

Yes, sir!

It was the perfect job for me. I wrote many feature stories. I loved being a feature writer.

And in a while I was promoted to assistant editor of Feature Parade. And when Fred Rushton retired, to editor.

Sadly I do not remember that artist’s name. He had lettered in “Bobolink” in the bottom right corner. But not his name.

I had put in a few hours on that article. He had put in countless hours on his masterpiece.

He was so pleased with my story that he gave me that painting!

It hangs in a special corner of my living room. I consider it priceless.

Why did I spend so much time telling you about him and his unique works of art?

Because it led to my fabulous writing job on Feature Parade and eventually becoming its editor. Which I had never aspired to.

Also to my family camping column, and the other freelance articles that I wrote for the

Telegram.

And of course, my getting to meet Albert B. Southwick.

Al Southwick wasn’t the old farmer that I suspected from his Down on the Farm columns. He was just a few years older than I was.

My office was on the second floor of the T&G building. And his was on the fourth. I’d see him on the elevator. We’d say hello. Chat for a minute.

And two other further important events in my life.

For one thing, I too had become a freelance weekly columnist for the Telegram.

Here’s how. I was married. My wife Pauline and I had two children, Arthur and Monique. And a few years later, Mark.

We had become interested in family camping, which was quite new. And becoming very popular.

I had talked Francis P. Murphy, managing editor of the Telegram, into my writing a weekly column on family camping for $20 per, on my own time.

It was published not in Feature Parade, but in another section of the Sunday Telegram.

So I was working extra the way Al was.

I wrote it for 10 years without missing a Sunday.

One time, while hospitalized, I wrote it from my hospital bed.

And one year I took my annual two-week vacation plus a month off without pay from the magazine. And with Pauline and our first two little kids went on a camping trip across the United States and back.

In a homemade tent trailer that a friend had helped me build. Long, long before the interstate highways.

I wrote a great big four-page spread of that adventure — that’s what it turned out to be — with photos of course for Feature Parade. And got paid for it.

Plus a dozen columns about national parks we had visited. All included photos I had taken.

They ran every Sunday in the separate Travel Section of the paper.

Like all big Sunday newspapers even now, the paper also published a section called “House and Home.”

Every week on its cover, it featured a local home that was both interesting and lovely. Nick Zook was the section’s editor. He had me do one, with photos of course. On my own time. He was pleased with it. He had me do a string of them.

I liked the extra money. And I learned a lot. The day came when Pauline and I bought a house lot in a nearby town and I had a house built that incorporated features that I had written up as part of those house and home articles.

Another year, Pauline and I and my father and mother flew to London, rented an RV, crossed the English Channel, toured France and four other countries.

Home again, I wrote a series about that with photos for the T&G, then sold the series to the big Providence (Rhode island) Sunday Journal.

And got paid for all those columns.

In all, I spent some l5 years at the main office of the Telegram and Gazette at 20 Franklin Street, just across from Worcester City Hall.

By the way,I believe I was the only writer Feature Parade ever had who had not served time as a working reporter in the city room of the Telegram.

So like Al Southwick, I had been doing considerable freelancing on the side.

Life is strange. I left Worcester. Moved out of state. Many changes, mostly good but some not so good.

Now, as I said, I live in Morro Bay, California, close to my daughter Monique and son-in-law David.

A few times decades ago I revisited Worcester to see how it was doing and to say hello to old friends.

Several times I stopped by to visit and chat with Al.

He was still living in the home he and Shirley had built on a corner of what had been the old family farmstead in Leicester. And I got to meet his second wife, Betty McGrath.

It has been his home ever since.

That’s where he has been creating his column for many years.

Oh, one more thing I must mention. He has said he makes it a point to not be controversial.

Well, I know of one column that upset a number of people.

He wrote a column about the settling of French Canada back in the 1600’s.

The title of it was, “How Louis XIV populated Canada.”

Characteristically, it is a long and richly detailed and persuasive piece. A good job as always.

He used as his research source the writings of Francis Parkman, the famous American 19th century historian of Canada and New England.

The French colonists were a mere few hundred. Mostly men. Few women. Some took up with squaws.

The Iroquois from what is now upper New York State were the arch enemy. They came, attacked, and killed.

King Louis XIV sent 800 troops to repel the Iroquois. They did that.

Then he recalled them to France for a new war that had started.

But he fully understood Quebec needed more “habitants.” He encouraged soldiers to settle there. Enticed them with a piece of land and a few cattle and hogs and fowls and other necessities and a bit of money.

There were very few women. He wanted the population of settlers to multiply. He sent over a number of ships with women. Young women.

They were snapped up by the men. The gals were so few they had a big advantage. It wasn’t the man interviewing the young women. It was just the opposite.

The big question the gals always asked was, “Do you have a house?”

Word spread that they were so-called “street women.” Prostitutes.

This part of Al’s column offended some readers. Worcester has a large population of descendants of immigrants from Quebec. I am one of them.

Al explained that he got his facts from Francis Parkman.

I checked this out years ago per expert Quebecois historians.

Way back then, church records of marriages and births and deaths were excellent.

As a result, I know that my great, great, great, great original Quebec ancestor was a soldier who accepted the king’s deal.

I know his family name, Beaudillac. I know where he came from in France. I know the name of the woman who became his wife.

I’m not sure exactly why, but many of the former soldiers who settled in Quebec took on new names. Very common names. Perhaps to emphasize their new start in this new land.

My ancestor Beaudillac became Monsieur Laplante.

It’s a common name. Like Johnson or Cohen here, you might say.

Somewhere I have notes tucked away about all that.

Of course, some readers of Al’s column who are descendants of immigrants from Quebec have been mighty indignant.

They have complained that this part of Quebec history is untrue. That the story of the “street women” is a malicious fabrication.

I took offense.

One of the letter writers was Leslie Choquette, professor of history and director of the French Institute at Assumption College.

The Institute is a specialized library and research center focusing on everything Quebecois in New England, indeed the United States.

Her letter was lengthy and detailed. She explained how this falsehood came to be. Citing one Louis-Armand Lom d’Arce (1666-1716), a nobleman who came to Canada as a 17-year-old soldier and served there for ten years before returning home.

He studied every aspect of the new colony, published three books, became as famous as Francis Parkman.

Professor Choquette said that he was known to love poking fun at Quebec’s dominant clerical establishment, and he did so with his malignant account of the “King’s girls,” as they were called.

The true historical fact, she said, is that most of the girls were orphans, many from the Paris General Hospital, a workhouse for the poor.

I know Professor Choquette. Have had discussions with her. She is a Ph.D. in history from Harvard.

By the way, she speaks and writes French as well as she does English. I can hold my own at that.

Some time ago she told me she was a great admirer of Albert B. Southwick for his columns. Just as I am.

She identifies herself as a proud descendant of a “King’s girl.” As I am.

My take on this? I believe the great majority were good girls. Some were prostitutes. I don’t believe they wanted to be prostitutes. They had to be prostitutes. There was no other way to get by. That was their reality.

I accept that. I do not find that so terrible.

Now back to Abert B. Southwick for a few minutes.

He has passed his long and nearly entire professional life with the Telegram and Gazette, as a salaried employee or a very active free-lance columnist, in fact a weekly one for years.

He has seen vast changes.

Back in his early days the Telegram was the morning paper and the Gazette the evening paper. The Telegram published seven days a week and The Gazette six days.

Both were in the same building, printed on the same presses, had the same editor-in-chief and the same editorial writers. But separate news staffs directed by managing editors always delighted to scoop the opposite paper.

You may not know much about Worcester. It is an impressive city. Lots of heavy industry. Numerous colleges and universities, including the University of Massachusetts Medical School. With a resulting cluster of hi-tech and hi-science companies close to the med school.

Still, many are surprised to hear it is the largest city in New England second only to Boston.

Al was working at the T&G made the list of the 100 biggest newspapers in the country. That was a big day.

He started when all of these big papers “were it” in delivering the news. There was no other reliable source.

Radio stations had just begun getting into the news business. And some years later, TV news got started.

He even saw the day when the T&G started its own radio station, WTAG, on the fourth floor of its own building.

When he started, the T&G was locally owned. He was working there when it was bought by a newspaper chain. Then bought by another chain.

He saw publishers and other executives coming in from other cities and other states to run the papers.

He saw the T&G move from its proud four-story building right across the street from City Hall to a mere suite of offices in a large office building.

With the printing and distribution done from an industrial park.

He saw the two papers change from morning and evening newspapers to just a morning one. With considerably smaller editorial, news, and advertising staffs.

Then came the day when because of killer competition from other media companies, many newspapers called it quits.

But the T&G is hanging in there.

Yes, he retired from the T&G decades ago. But as I’ve said, he’s never retired from writing.

His freelancing has included both his ongoing weekly column for the T&G and articles and essays for other publications, including some of the finest in the country.

Methinks he has worked far longer as a freelancer of occasional articles for the T&G and then as a weekly columnist year in and year out than he did as a salaried employee.

I will bet that Al Southwick is the longest writing journalist in the United States.

I find that his writings to this day continue to be topically and historically important locally and nationally. And compelling and interesting.

He has never won a Pulitzer though he has won other prizes and honors.

But I believe he deserves a Pulitzer for what I think would be a new category — a well-deserved one — career-long enthusiasm and superb professional skills.

As you now know, I was a journalist at the T&G for just 15 years, but which I thought was quite a stretch back then.

By the way, we did not call ourselves journalists back then. We called ourselves newspapermen, and proudly.

I was a rare one. I had a master’s in journalism from Boston University. Yes, way back then. I quickly found out I was the only academically trained journalist at the T&G. It’s common nowadays.

All the others had learned on the job, and most of them could certainly hold their own. Including Albert Southwick.

It’s so wonderful that he’s in his 101st year and still writing. It’s inspirational.

It will be a sad, sad day indeed when my friend Roger Trahan of Worcester runs out of columns by him to forward to me.

Let’s hope it won’t be for a while.

Comments

  1. John, your excellent story about Al Southwick is posted: http://johnguylaplante.com/wp/2020/09/09/al-southwick-is-still-writing-his-column-at-age-100/ – Sheila

  2. Ken Mattingly says

    Very inspiring, John. Retirement is overrated. Retirement doesn’t truly happen until one breathes his or her last breath.

  3. Well put, Ken. Very well put!
    What are you up to? How about an update?

  4. Joan Perrone says

    Hi John,

    Very interesting article. Both because of the description of Mr. Southwick’s life; but as I also am a descendant of the “King’s Girls.” LOL

    I am glad to see that you are still writing. I know that this is your passion…it’s what keeps you young and alive. :}

    Frank had a shoulder replacement and is recuperating nicely. I am doing well. We will be celebrating our 60th anniversary on Oct. 29th. I can’t believe that that much time has gone by.
    Joanperr@sbcglobal.net
    Email *

    Keep well, stay safe.

    Love,

    Cousin Joan

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