As best I can figure, I met Bill Foster when I was in my early 30s.
I found myself pondering that while navigating traffic on Route 95, headed for Route 4 and the East Greenwich Division Street exit.
I was late. I just didn’t know how late.
The memorial service started at 1 p.m. and the dash clock was reading 1:05. I calculated that, in another 15 minutes, I would slide into the back of the church. I’d be there to hear most of the service and to express my sympathy to Bill’s family, although I doubted I would recognize most of his five children. It’s been years.
Bill was the editor and publisher of the East Greenwich Pendulum. He was a fair man and, as I came to learn, knew everything that was going on in town. That’s because everybody knew him.
Having worked as a reporter for daily papers in Port Chester, N.Y. and Hartford, Conn., before coming to Rhode Island, I had never met anyone in the newspaper business like him.
I was accustomed to the beat reporter, who was looking for the scoop as much as bragging rights in the newsroom about beating out the competition. Editors – and they were all men with the exception of the society editor – literally wore green visors and worked with blue pencils and scissors. They would add text between double spaced lines of copy, fresh from a Royal typewriter. With scissors and paste, they would rearrange whole paragraphs. They asked questions and demanded answers, right up to the deadline. They were all business until the paper “was put to bed.”
I can’t ever recall seeing Bill cut and paste copy or, for that matter, seated at a Royal, yet I knew – “felt,” is the better word – that he was the man who was the paper. I remember stepping up to the Pendulum office from London Street and entering what could only be a newspaper and print shop. There was the smell of ink and newsprint, the ring of phones and papers, lots of papers. This was the hub to a small town.
I wondered, as I drove down Division Street, whether there would be a moment in the service where people would be asked to share their recollections or a particularly meaningful story.
What could I say that others who knew him so much better than I wouldn’t have already said? Should I say anything? Who would care?
The dash said 1:15. I was making better time than I thought possible. I expected the parking lot to be full but there wasn’t a single car. Had I gotten the wrong location?
I told Richard Fleischer about the service and he said he might go. I found my cell and dialed. His daughter answered. Maybe he had left the phone at home.
“I’ll get him,” she said cheerfully.
Obviously he wasn’t at the service.
“You said St. Luke’s, maybe it’s another church. It shouldn’t be that hard to find,” he said.
I started the tour, but, at 1:30 on a sunny Sunday, not a single church showed signs of activity, not even Our Lady of Mercy. By 2 p.m. I had given up and was headed home.
But what would I have said?
It seems hard to believe, when we have so many other sources, that the town newspaper could play such an important role. The Pendulum had a circulation greater than the number of households in East Greenwich. Everybody got it. When you moved into town, it was your passport to the neighborhood. When you moved away, it was how you stayed in touch. It was all in one weekly package.
Today people get their news intravenously; fed by cell phone, Facebook, Twitter, the Internet and, according to those who study such things, less and less from radio and television. I wonder how much of it has meaning and, in the case of the social media, how much of it wouldn’t have been said – and photographed – if it wasn’t for the instantaneousness of the medium. Some very stupid and hurtful things take on a life when they “go viral.” Some say newspapers are dinosaurs, but I don’t think so. Nor would, I think, Bill.
Bill was an editor and publisher in a different era that wasn’t all that long ago. The Pendulum was the “Facebook” of the town before the term was coined. Bill was out learning what was happening, whether in the diner over a grilled cheese and soup, in town government or walking Main Street.
On Monday morning, I discovered my error. The service was Saturday. Somehow Sunday was stuck in my mind. I shot off an email to Mark Thompson, who worked as a reporter during Bill’s tenure and now is a Pulitzer Prize reporter at Time Magazine. I knew he would have been there.
He was more than there; he talked at some length about Bill.
Mark shared stories, starting off with Bill’s favorite classified ad:
“‘Piano. For sale. By lady with carved legs.’ That tells us two things: he had a young boy's sense of humor, and he knew what side of the newspaper business was the important one,” Mark said.
Then there was the nugget; the event that forever changed things for Mark.
“I'm sure he never recalled, but I will never forget what he wrote in the Pendulum of June 10, 1971, at the end of my final sports article in my senior year at EGHS: ‘Editor's note: This is the last story to be submitted by Mark Thompson. We consider his reporting activities on the Avengers this season to be outstanding.’”
Mark went on to say, “Outstanding! I was gobsmacked that the Pendulum editor would take the time to add such a P.S. to the end of another sports story. It meant I could be a reporter. It was, to a young kid, almost an anointing: it meant I would be a reporter.”
The Pendulum was the Facebook of its time and Bill was at the helm. He sifted through what he was fed; he realized news is not always momentous, to be taken seriously or, for that matter, worth printing. He understood that words are powerful tools and that an editor’s role carries responsibilities.
If he were here, I can imagine he would chastise me for not checking the facts and getting the right date for his service. Yet, I believe he would agree that, as much as newspapers are called obsolete, the sifting and selection of information prior to printing is so vital to an informed public. It’s even more important today, when much that is not filtered bombards us.