July 23, 2021

I never dreamed I’d live and work in so many places. Part 3

I never dreamed I’d live and work in so many places. Part 3

By John Guy LaPlante

Two weeks later I started working as the editor of the little Thomaston Express, circulation 1,650 or so.

From the May 27, 1954 paper.

A one-year subscription cost $4.50 in advance. Six months, $2.25 in advance. A single copy, 10 cents.

I planned to spend one or two years at the Express. I started on the 1st of July and left just before Thanksgiving, quitting over a dispute with the publisher.

I will call him Dominic Grimaldi. He spent most of his time selling ads and doing PR for the paper at the Town Hall and the Thomaston Businessmen’s Association.

No way would the Express win any prizes as a great small-town newspaper. It was a so-so weekly like countless others across the country.

The first thing I needed was a room. I had no car. There was no bus. It had to be within walking distance.

Dom told me about Mrs. Riley’s. She was a widow. She would take in one or two boarders.

I introduced myself. She had a bedroom for me. She would provide linens and towels. The charge would be $11 per week. And for $1.50 she would serve me breakfast 7 days a week. I said okay and put $12.50 in her hand.

She was a nice lady. She served me a good breakfast.

I lived at her place from my first to my last day in Thomaston.

The first thing Dom did was introduce me to his workers at the Express.

It was in a gray, shingled single-story building that at one time had been an auto garage, I think.

It was one block back from the very impressive Town Hall and the great big Thomaston factory building one block away.

Thomaston was named for the great Seth Thomas, clockmaker. Now it accommodated different little shops and businesses.

In its day, Seth Thomas Clocks was the biggest manufacturer of clocks in the United States.

The workday at the Express started at 8:00 a.m. and ended at 5:00 p.m.

The first worker I met was Arnold, about 50. A nice guy. He was the Linotype operator. Highly skilled. He set the type for everything that went into the paper, meaning stories and ads.

Then Gus, about 60. He put on a leather apron when he came to work in the morning and took it off when he went home at day’s end.

He was the compositor. Most of the time he had a dead cigar in his mouth.

He would gather everything that Arnold had typeset and fill every page with it. Big stories with big headlines. Lesser stories with small headlines. Any photos that had to be included, with their captions. Obituaries if there were some. Big ads and small ads.

He would lock all these in very tightly in heavy steel printer’s chases.

And then turn them over to Max, 45 or so. He was the printer. All business.

When Dominic introduced me, Max just nodded and kept on working.

The paper was a 16-page tabloid.

Max would print the less important pages first, and the most important ones last to accommodate any late-breaking news.

He printed the pages on a big flat-bed press. Four pages at a time per side. Then the set of two pages would float over a long pipe perforated on one side with small holes. Each hole had a jet of gas burning. The flame would dry the ink.

If one set of two pages went over too slowly, it would catch fire.

Max kept an old broom handy.

When that happened he would say “Goddam!” and beat out the fire with his broom. Then clean up the mess and start anew.

I saw that happen more than once.

Then the pages would be folded in a way that made them pages 1 through 16.

Oh, I also met Tony. He was Dom’s much younger brother. I liked him. He was fun. Liked to joke. He would go pick up an ad. Sweep the floor. Help bundle the papers at the end of the press run, tie them into bundles, and deliver a big bagful to the Post Office and to stores big and small around town.

On the first Monday morning, Dominic introduced me to key people at the Town Hall.

The all-important first selectman (mayor, so to speak), then the all-important town clerk, and then the all-important police chief.

We printed on Thursdays. On Wednesday afternoon I went to all these people to gather any news.

Then I would begin writing all this up, then deciding where I’d put them in the paper with their headlines and photos and captions.

It was a lot of work.

Anyway, after all those introductions that morning, Dominic took me to the White Fence Inn for lunch. Right there in Thomaston. Deluxe. One of the best-known restaurants for miles around.

White Fence Inn, Thomaston, CT

He seemed to know a lot of the customers. He introduced me to a few. He talked seriously with some, joked with others. Would have a waiter seat us at one of the most prominent tables, and hand each of us a very elaborate menu.

I did not know what some of the dishes were. Oh, well. We had lunch and chatted. Then he picked up the tab. I got to find out that he ate there often.

He would invite me to lunch there every 2 or 3 weeks. Always picked up the tab. I got to know some of the regulars.

After that first lunch, he drove me around town. Showed me the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church. The big supermarket.

The biggest employer was the famous national Plume and Atwood Manufacturing Company. It made a variety of items out of brass, big and small. Its huge rolling mill was in Thomaston.

In the various neighborhoods, the Express would have a correspondent, invariably an older woman, who would type up items of things happening in her neighborhood and send it in.

Oh, getting back to Dom, I did not know what my salary would be. He told me $60 a week. Far less than I expected. He saw me frown.

I told him that I would do a first-class job. Guaranteed that.

Dom said if I did a first-class job, he would give me a raise.

“A good one?” I asked.

He smiled. “Of course!” And patted me on the shoulder.

I went right to work.

I made many changes.

Once in a while I needed a photograph. There was a portrait photographer in town.

He did wedding pictures and graduation pictures and such.

His name was Milo Puwalchek. We had a deal.

If I needed a photo of some kind, he would take it.

And for that he would get a credit line, “Photo by Milo.” That helped build up his studio business.

He became my best friend in Thomaston.

Heading back to my list of improvements, I removed all ads from the first page. Wrote a strong editorial for Page 2 every week, sometimes two. Started a weekly column called “EXPRESSions by JG” — two or three-paragraph tidbits about town. It had a high readership.

And I came up with a feature story every week.

In fact, I came up with a standard format for the Express that repeated every week. Big stories on page one. Editorials on page 2. Obits on page 4.

Sports on page 6. And so on.

Readers got to see that this was a professional operation.

I was very proud of what I had been accomplishing.

I felt Professor Hill would be tickled that he had recommended me.

As Thanksgiving was approaching, one afternoon before quitting time I went to Dominic and asked him about the raise he had promised me.

I expected a raise of at least 50 percent.

He smiled. “Yes, John. You have done a good job. I’m really pleased that Professor Hill recommended you and I hired you.”

“Thank you, Dom. I’m happy to hear that. But tell me. How much will I be getting?”

“Of course, John. $10 a month. Effective at the end of next month. You deserve that, John.”

Only 10 lousy dollars! I couldn’t believe it. I wondered if I had heard right. He smiled again and nodded.

I was angry. He could see that. Told him right off that I would leave in two weeks, just before Thanksgiving.

I was thinking, hoping he might make me a counter offer. He did not.

Wait until my sweetheart Pauline hears about this! No way could we even think of getting married.

I finished up. Cleaned out my desk. Said goodbye to Mrs. Riley and the gang at the paper and took off.

I felt Dominic had been very dumb in letting me leave.

After my first 2 months at the Express, Pa and Ma had driven to Thomaston to see how I was doing. They were very pleased.

Now I’d have to go home and tell them the bad news. Brown University had been bad news to them. Now the Express was bad news.

Anyway, back home with Pa and Ma in Pawtucket, I would be able to go visit Pauline once or twice a week. She lived in Putnam, Connecticut, a 45- minute drive.

Pa and Ma had bought me a nice car. Every Saturday afternoon I’d head to Putnam for the evening. 45-minute drive.

Pauline was no longer bringing up the matter of a wedding date.

But then I heard of a weekly newspaper for sale in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

I began checking that out.

Woonsocket was a bit smaller than Pawtucket. It had a good daily newspaper, the Woonsocket Call.

It also had a weekly newspaper that was a mishmash of junk. For sale cheap.

I talked to Pa about that and explained how I would change it into a picture / feature weekly. I felt it would be a big success. He had grave doubts. Was far from enthusiastic. But I talked him into it.

He had a first cousin, Hervé Théroux, an immigrant like Pa who had become very successful. He was the owner of the largest general insurance office in the city. Had many important contacts.

Pa would arrange a meeting of the three of us in Mr. Theroux’s office. It happened. I made my pitch.

I would change the paper completely. I would not fill it with news stories. No way could I compete with the Call in covering the news.

I would fill the weekly paper with feature stories, which always get high readership. I was good at feature writing. And high readership would attract high local advertising. I felt it was a win-win.

Pa and Mr. Théroux looked at one another. Silence.

Then Pa spoke. “Well, Hervé, what do you think? Be honest now.”

Silence.

“Well, Arthur, I think Jean-Guy maybe has a good idea. The Call is often a bit dull. Most days I get through it in just 15 or 20 minutes.”

Then just small talk for 10 or 15 minutes.

Then Pa said, “Well, thank you, Hervé. We do appreciate your advice. Really do. Now we’ll go home and think about all this a bit.”

Finally I convinced Pa to buy the paper.

It had no printing facility. The printing of it was farmed out to a newspaper in Providence, which printed it on the side.

Pa would cover the printing bills for six months. By then its new high readership would have increased circulation substantially and the paper could support itself.

This was the headquarters of the fraternal society in Woonsocket,  Rhode Island, which awarded me a scholarship to study at Assumption Prep School and College for 8 years.

And later, when I was the publisher and editor of the Woonsocket Sunday Star, I rented office space on the third floor of this building.

I rented a two-room office for it on the third floor of the home office of the St. John the Baptist Fraternal Society. Which had given me that scholarship to Assumption. They knew me there.

I retained the make-up editor from the old newspaper. His name was Gerome. He was also a good photographer. I hired a secretary, Rita, about 26.

I bought a Justowriter like the one I had learned how to use at the Burroughs office supply store in Boston. Taught Rita how to use it. She learned fast.

What I was desperate for was a good advertising man.

One day a man walked in and introduced himself. I’ll call him Franklin. Had 25 years of experience in newspaper advertising. He would work at zero commission for the first eight issues. Wow!

I renamed the paper “The Sunday Star.”

Dennis, the man who every weekend packed bundles of papers in his small truck and distributed them to various stores and sale spots in the city, would continue to do that at a reasonable price .

Perfect. Off to a great start.

I had heard of a pilot with a small plane at the local airport who would tow advertising banners over the city for an hour or two. His name was Greg.

I met him and worked out a deal. I would write a story about how he had learned to fly and do this banner towing.

A story with pictures illustrating the various steps in getting all this done.

It would be fascinating. Readers would love it.

Gerome, my makeup editor who was also good with a camera, would take the pictures.

Among other things, Greg explained he could tow a banner with 24 letters and spaces.

Meanwhile, Franklin would go out and sell ads for the new paper. He said he loved the new editorial format I had designed for the paper and it should be easy for him to generate substantial ads for our first edition.

Of course I clued in Pauline about all this. Finally we could get married!

Only one thing could go wrong. Bad weather on flight day!

I decided flight day would be on Easter Sunday.

My very first edition of my paper, The Sunday Star, would already have been distributed to stores and other sale spots. People, very curious about this new paper, could buy a copy and read about this fantastic new feature-story newspaper with the big, interesting new ads.

Well, all that happened. Or so I thought.

Easter morning was bright and beautiful.

I arrived early. Found a good spot to observe the sky. Kept looking and looking. Finally found the little plane towing the big banner: SUNDAY STAR REBORN TODAY.

I was so, so proud of having thought up that fantastic stunt and staging it.

Greg kept towing that banner around until he nearly ran out of gas.

But sales of that first issue of the Sunday Star were few.

That’s when I realized a lot of people had never noticed the little plane up there towing the banner. They were in church. Or at home. And for some, Easter meant just that. Some people didn’t have a clue about “reborn today”.

Pa and Ma never got to see it. Cousin Hervé Théroux never got to see it.

Pauline was not able to come and see it.

Anyway, at our office the Justowriter was perfect for what we were doing for this type of work.

Franklin kept coming in with big, bright new ads and I was delighted with all that.

But advertisers were not sending me checks for the bills I was sending out to them every Monday morning.

It was all a fraud.

Franklin would tell an advertiser he would run an ad free. And when the ad started getting results, as he was sure they would, then the advertiser could start paying for the ad.

Franklin had never told me that was the deal he offered advertisers. And they considered it a good gamble.

One day Franklin stopped coming to work. He had skipped town or something. I never saw him again.

Pa had kept on paying the printing bills.

Pauline was aware how desperate the situation was.

She was working in a bank. One day she gave me an envelope with $700 in it. All her savings. She wanted to help. Wonderful of her.

In seven months my Sunday Star was dead.

Pa had made a terrible mistake.

He should never have let me start the Sunday Star.

I was good at feature writing and using the Justowriter, but I was too inexperienced at running a business. That was the sad, unvarnished fact.

I kept living at home with Pa and Ma. Things were very tense there.

Ma just wouldn’t talk about the Sunday Star fiasco. And she worried Pa was developing a mental breakdown. He had lost a pile of money in backing me.

I was very worried about him also. My poor Pa would sit in his rocking chair and brood, brood, brood.

And I wasn’t proud of myself. Anything but. The Thomaston Express had been nothing I wanted to boast about. It had been a huge flop.

I hoped that Professor Evan Hill would never get to hear about it.

I went more than three months unemployed. I was glum and depressed, too. Awful!

Pauline was being patient and understanding. But she wasn’t sparkling. Far from it. And there was no wedding date being set. Or even talked about.

When and how would things get better? Could they?

Well, they did.

Remember my dear Aunt Bernadette? The one who’d lend me her car to get to Brown? Who went out and bought a desk and desk chair for me?

Well, one morning she stopped by and noticed how glum I was.

“Come on, Jean-Guy, ” she said. “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s go for a little ride.” I nodded. Off we went. But it wasn’t just a little ride.

She suggested we go to Worcester, 40 miles away, and see what was happening at Assumption, where I had spent eight years, as you know.

In downtown Worcester, we passed by the big Worcester Telegram and Gazette building. Right across from the big City Hall.

She was excited. “Jean-Guy, go on in. See if you can talk to an editor. Or whoever speaks to people looking for a job. See if you can put in an application!”

And I did that. I spoke to an editor named Frank Crotty. He had me fill out an application. Looked it over.

Said to me, “We have an opening for a county reporter. The starting pay is $50 a week. Would that interest you?”

“Yes, sir!”

I went to work at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette two weeks later.

At that time the T&G was quite a paper. It was included in the list of the 100 largest newspapers in the United States — at the lower end of the list, but still.

Dominic at the Thomaston Express had paid me $60 a month. The T&G would be paying me nearly four times more, just as a county reporter. And I worked for the T&G some 12 years in a variety of jobs.

I started as a county reporter. Quickly became a bureau chief directing several county reporters. Then also began running a second bureau simultaneously.

Directed the news operation in two small cities, Webster and Southbridge.

At that time Pauline and I married, started a family, and even had a very nice home built for us in the small town of Auburn, just a 20 minute ride from The Telegram and Gazette.

Frank Crotty, the editor who had hired me, was fascinated by artists with easels and paint brushes. He would do a great job of interviewing them and writing them up. He would do one every five or six weeks and I’d buy them for our Feature Parade magazine.

Began writing freelance stories for the T&G’s Sunday magazine, “Feature Parade.”

Soon became a staff writer.

The editor was Fred Rushton. We got along well.

We got along well. One week I got an exciting new idea.

Wasn’t sure how he’d react but hoped he’d love it.

I had never been beyond the Hudson River. I was itching to travel all the way to California and back and write about all that.

By then Pauline and I had two little kids. Our son Arthur was nearly 2 and our daughter Monique about 1.

Pauline holding Mark in 1963. He was born after our camping trip.

I had become good with a camera.

I got a folding tent trailer and I had a new car.

I had a two-week vacation coming up. I asked Fred if I could take an extra 6 weeks off at zero pay.

I told him I would love to travel and write features and illustrate them with photos that I would take and send all this back to him to publish.

I suggested a first story.

Just 200 miles away in eastern New York State was a small town called Worcester.

That would be our first stop. I would interview people there, see what the main industry was there, find out how things were going, and take pictures.

I had gotten a small portable typewriter.

I would type up my story and mail it back with the undeveloped roll of film.

We would do this all the way to California.

In Hollywood I knew of an actor who had grown up in the Worcester area, and was becoming well known as a character actor appearing in successful movies and earning a darn good living. I remember his name — Jaques Aubuchon.

I had made arrangements to interview him.

We got there. He was pleased to welcome us. It was a pleasure to interview him.

Then he walked me through the studio where he was one of the actors appearing in a new movie.

I took photos, greatly enjoyed interviewing him, typed up my story, and mailed it all back to Fred in Worcester. He promptly published it.

But during much of that, poor Pauline had to watch our little Arthur and Monique, and be patient about my interview ending soon. She was a darn good sport about that.

Fred was delighted in getting my stories and publishing them. And was good about paying me the going freelance rate.

Oh, going way out to California and back and returning we would visit national parks and monuments and I would write a separate series of articles about them, with photos.

Well, it all happened.

And remember, we were camping out every night. Setting up our folding tent trailer, sleeping in it, closing it in the morning, cooking many of our meals outside on a campstove, and hoping we wouldn’t run into bad weather.

We had some scary moments, such as the time we encountered a huge bear in Yellowstone National Park. It came close and sniffed but then turned and ambled away. Wow! What a relief!

We kept running into folks touring like us and camping out like us and I got to see what a popular family sport camping out could be.

So on the side, back at the T&G, for extra money, I began writing a weekly column called Camps and Camping that got published in a different section of the Sunday Telegram.

And I wrote that column for every Sunday for 10 years, without missing a single week.

But one week I had to write it from a hospital bed at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester because I had come down with something that had to be checked out.

Back at Feature Parade I had resumed working as the principal feature writer.

The fellow pointing with a pencil is me when I was editor of feature Parade Magazine

I did stories all over Massachusetts and beyond. Cape Cod. Newport, Rhode Island. MIT. Wrote up famous people.

But Fred Rushton was not feeling well and he retired early. I was chosen to become the new editor of Feature Parade.

I had been getting my paycheck every Friday for the week’s work.

Now as the new Feature Parade editor and new T&G executive I would get a raise, but I would be paid once a month, in advance.

I wondered about that. Why in advance?

I had a friend who was an executive. I asked him why.

“John, don’t you see? The Montreal World Fair is being held there that year. I spent 10 days up there and wrote numerous stories about that.

Pa was good company. And he enjoyed seeing how I went about it and later reading the feature stories I wrote.

He became quite proud of me.

Poor Ma. She had little interest in my being a writer and editor. She really wanted me to be a doctor. Oh, well.

It seems odd but I left the Telegram and Gazette to do public relations work at my old alma mater, Assumption, and the St. John the Baptist Fraternal Society that had given me a scholarship to attend Assumption.

At Assumption I became the Director of Public Relations. And a year later, I got a big promotion to Director of Public Affairs, which included the all-important fundraising that is essential to any non-profit.

(By the way, you may not be aware of this, but very recently Assumption College legally and officially became Assumption University, with a greater variety of course offerings, majors, and degrees.)

That experience in PR and fundraising at Assumption led to my starting a public relations practice of my own, with my own office and staff. Which turned out to be quite successful.

In time I got to represent a Catholic Prep School, a Catholic assisted living institution, a couple of banks, more than a dozen hospitals, including one that became the leading alcohol and drug recovery hospital with an outpatient program in a radius of more than 100 miles.

It all happened because of my dear Aunt Bernadette, who prodded me to go in and apply at the T&G.

She had no idea that would lead to so many good things.

Bless her!

Comments

  1. Ivan Otterness says

    John,
    Your life has been an adventure!
    And one that it is always a delight to read about.
    Ivan

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