Richard Reston, Editor and Mentor, Retires After 28 Years with the Gazette

Richard Reston, editor and publisher of the Vineyard Gazette, retires today. As staff Senior Writer Julia Wells notes below, his tenure has seen this 156-year-old paper through an important period.

By JULIA WELLS Gazette Senior Writer

It's 10 p.m. on a Thursday night. Steve Durkee, the Gazette graphics director, is in Dick Reston's office, his head stuck out the open skylight, smoking a cigarette. Dick is at his computer, writing headlines. Out in the newsroom, Chris Burrell is hunched over his own terminal, trying to get the tone just right on his West Tisbury backgrounder. I am rummaging around in the Gazette library looking for some poetry that will work for a skyline (the line of verse that runs across the top of the front page). I find an E.B. White quote about the virtue of delay for writers and I read it aloud to Chris, delaying him even more from finishing his story.

A few hours earlier, Dick was in the newsroom, one foot hoisted on somebody's desk, telling some war story from when he was a reporter in Washington, D.C., 40 years ago and covered the White House and was assigned to travel around with Henry Kissinger.

Everyone who has worked at the Gazette has heard the Reston war stories, and of course they make for great Reston ribbing. (Tom Dunlop, Edgartown actor and writer, does the best impersonation, although he swears he will never do it in front of Dick.)

But it's also true that somehow we never get tired of the stories; they always come at the right moments. They come in the middle of Monday tedium when the phones are quiet and you can't quite get geared up for a full day of work - and they come in the middle of deadline on Thursday when the phones never quit and a story breaks at 4 p.m. and dinner is an event that only takes place in your imagination.

This is the rhythm of a community newspaper - it's uneven and, contrary to what many people think, there is never really a master plan, just a lot of bits and pieces that somehow come together in the end. And at 10 p.m. on Thursday night there are always the loose ends: The last headlines that need writing, the last reporter trying to finish his file, the frantic search for the list of names needed for a caption for the front page photograph.

On this Thursday night the list is finally unearthed at the bottom of a pile of papers on the corner of Dick's desk.

The chair creaks and the editor wanders out into the newsroom to see the reporter who is still writing. "Let's see what you've got for a top on that story," he says, a gentle hand on Chris's shoulder.

The Reston war stories, the penny-loafered Reston foot hoisted on the desk, the Reston hand on the shoulder - it all comes to an end today when Dick retires after 28 years on the job here at the Gazette. It is of course an understatement to say that he has earned his retirement, but Dick has always been high on understatement. Then again it is also a bit of a cliche and as every reporter he ever taught knows, Dick is death on cliches.

In 28 years he has taught a lot of reporters.

"Dick Reston is the best editor I ever had," said Hollis Engley, a former Gazette reporter and retired features editor for Gannett News Services.

"The best thing is that Dick treated everyone - even a reporter who came to the newsroom directly from her own college commencement - as a friend and valued colleague. He always trusted the people he hired. If you got something wrong, you'd hear about it gently; more importantly, if you got something right you'd hear about that, too," he said.

"I think of him as an editor but principally as an incredible teacher," said Jason Gay, a former Gazette reporter who is now a reporter for the New York Observer. He added: "His legacy is not only as a steward of the best community newspaper in the country, but equally important as being a teacher to young reporters. He has a way of communicating and teaching - and he always brought an avalanche of experience and perspective to everything."

"When Dick hired me I was a young, eager guy who was a pretty decent fact-gatherer, but I had no idea how to put those facts together so they meant something. He'd be enthusiastic about everything I covered, no matter how obscure or bureaucratic," said Jim Kelly, the executive editor of the Honolulu Advertiser, who got his start at the Gazette.

"Even more important, Dick is a master of the nearly lost art of elegant newspaper writing. He'd take that stubby editing pencil and expertly repair my illiterate explanations of obscure zoning laws, my well-meaning attempts at color and texture, my ignorant theories on Island politics. He is a patient, caring and enthusiastic teacher and for a time in the early 1980s nothing mattered more in the world to me than his approval of something I wrote."

When he took the helm of the Gazette in 1975 his predecessor, the late country editor Henry Beetle Hough, had made a serious commitment to conservation and protecting the natural world on the Vineyard. Dick took this commitment seriously, took it as his legacy.

Since then he has presided over some of the best journalism in the long history of the paper. In 1987 the Gazette was at the center of the battle to save South Beach from developers. In 1988 the paper commissioned a Harris Poll, a first for the Vineyard. For more than a decade the paper battled the development plans for Herring Creek Farm. The near-sinking of the ferry Islander in 1980, the financial crisis that nearly closed the Martha's Vineyard Hospital in the 1990s - Mr. Reston steered the Gazette through all the events large and small, easy and difficult.

Six times on his watch the Gazette was named newspaper of the year by the New England Press Association. All told over 28 years, the paper collected dozens of awards, including several for community service. In 1991 the paper was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Hurricane Bob. The list of accomplishments is too long for this space.

But for Dick it's never been only about the battles and the prizes. He celebrates nature in his penny loafers, as he likes to joke, but he also loves the letters, the phone calls good and bad (oh man, can he talk on the phone), the unsolicited op-ed pieces from far flung corners of the world, the obituaries, the birth announcements, the town columns. The skyline.

He loves every one of the bits and pieces that are this particular community newspaper.

Now on the occasion of his retirement, he wants to just slip out the door, so we're going to let him do that with only a low-key party and a little bit of ribbing and fanfare. Understated.

But we can't let him go without a small word:

It's just goodbye. And thanks for all the years.