I knew this day would come. I was hoping it would be a long while yet. But when that little black train rolls into the station, you have to board whether you like it or not.
The call came this past weekend. Harrison Church had died. Rather than focus on that, let me tell you what kind a person Harrison was.
He was an old-school newspaper man, fiercely independent, opinionated for sure. He was as much a patriot as he was an anarchist with a clear understanding of right and wrong and unafraid to speak truth to power. He was the right kind of newsman, skeptical and weary, educated and intelligent. And he was possibly the most generous man I’ve ever known.
He was a lawyer, a teacher, a mentor. My friend.
He was an only child but when he inherited his parents wealth, his attitude was that he hadn’t earned it and he would use it to further his parent’s causes. He established a foundation in their name and gave away about half a million dollars while living the modest lifestyle to which he was accustomed.
When it came time to sell his newspaper, his concern was not how much money he could make. His priority was to find the right person who would continue to operate the century-old paper — that his family owned for 75 years — as independently as he had.
I was working for the Illinois Press Association, and I had identified the Lebanon newspaper as a good potential investment. I knew Harrison would need to find a successor and the paper was underperforming in a good market area.
Being old-school, Harrison was still putting the paper together with the old fashioned cut-and-paste method. Technology had outpaced him. I had discussed the paper with several of my publisher friends and at least one had approached Harrison, but he wouldn’t sell it.
Another publisher suggested that I buy it. It was a scary idea, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. I called Harrison and told him what I wanted. He said the paper wasn’t for sale but we could talk about it, anyway.
I started making weekly trips down to Lebanon just to chat with him. He wanted to know what kind of newspaper guy I would be. After several months, he decided to make the deal.
I knew what one of the other publishers had offered him, and my bid was much less. But as explained, Harrison didn’t care about that.
He was adamant about a few things. He would help me all he could, and he did, but he made it clear that all decisions going forward were to be mine.
“If I thought I could influence you,” he said, “I wouldn’t have sold it to you.”
There were a couple of charity ads running in the paper, which I told him I’d be happy to continue. He insisted on paying for them himself and I’m betting the beneficiary organizations never knew that.
I’ll never be the newsman that Harrison was. I’m humbled to know that he put his trust in me, anyway.
Maybe it was the cigars — a vice that he and I shared as all good newspapermen do.
As is so often the case in these matters, I regret that I didn’t have more time with him — more time for that consummate editor mojo to rub off on me.
I will light a candle, my friend, in your honor. And I will use that candle to light this cigar. Godspeed, Harrison Leon Church.