NORWAY — Howard James never wanted to be called a journalist.
He was a writer.
And those who knew him well, say he was one of the best.
James, former publisher of the Advertiser Democrat, the Rumford Falls Times, Pulitzer Prize reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, reporter for the Chicago Tribune, author, husband and father passed away last week at the age of 83.
“With Howard’s passing, the world of honest, hard-hitting journalism has suffered a substantial blow and those of us who called him our boss, mentor and friend will never be quite the same,” said former Advertiser Democrat Editor Susan Arena.
His wife Judith (Munro) James, the former publisher of the Berlin Reporter in N.H., said this week that her husband wanted to die working at his desk, not as a retiree relaxing in sunny in Florida.
At the age of 72, two years after he sold the newspapers and “retired” to spend more time with family and writing books, he started applying for jobs all over the United States.
The writer who was called “world class,” who authored books, wrote for the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, was a publisher, and a Pulitzer Prize winner, could not get a job.
He was too old.
“He faced age discrimination,” said Judith. James eventually got editorial work and wrote until he was too ill to do so, she said.
James began his newspaper career in the late 1950s as a television journalist, but he quickly became disenchanted with the medium finding the “talent” too egotistical.
“I was very engaged in politics even in college,” said James in a series of recordings he made for his family this past year. He purchased a camera that could record voices and went to work covering the state legislature in Michigan.
He set up the first news service at Michigan State in Lansing, Michigan, where he had initially studied to be a forester. Years later, he received an honorary doctorate degree from Michigan State for his lifetime work.
He was hired by the Chicago Tribune and four years later left to work for the Christian Science Monitor, eventually becoming its MidWest Bureau Chief in 1964.
He was old school journalist at its finest at a time when typewriters and spikes ruled the newsroom.
Old school principles such as trust were often earned by sitting for hours on a bar stool listening to a politician unload his troubles; writing humane stories by experiencing the inhumane conditions of a black woman and her children by embedding himself in a Presbyterian Settlement House; jumping into streets of a rioting black neighborhood in the 1960s where he was shot at and then carried away to safety by some of those same blacks.
That was earned trust.
He was always an activist journalist, said his wife.
He was known by the black community and protected by them because of his willingness to come into their world and care enough to report on the conditions.
“I had no trouble ever in the black community,” he said.
When a black man tried to rob him on the streets one night, James turned to him and simply said, “I’m not interested,“ and kept walking. The would be robber stood there stunned.
When he heard that two black children were missing and found them jailed for being in a church trying to find a bathroom to use, he paid to bail them out.
“Howard was outraged,” said Judith. “He got them out.”
He went to a juvenile detention center when he learned and reported that rubber hoses were being turned on young people to destroy their eardrums.
James’ time in the Settlement House where he met Flora Mae Fagan and her six children whom he later described as being laid out on a bed “like strips of bacon,” in a small, cramped room filled with critters, demanded action from the city, he recalled in his family recordings.
He made the Chicago Tribune deliver a Christmas tree and baskets of fruit to the woman’s family and then convinced Mayor Richard J. Daley to go see and correct the living conditions.
Flora Mae was so moved, he said, that she later had her son write a thank you note to him.
“It was pure poetry,” James recalled of the letter by Fagen’s son “I tried to get him into college. In the end he ended up sweeping out dirt in a steel mill.”
“Terrible,” Howard said softly, his voice appearing to break with emotion. “He was such a talent.”
He also did not shy away from stories that might cost him sources.
He wrote what he called “a very strong, honest” profile of Mayor Daley who became his friend. Daley often sought out James for advice on how to deal with the unrest in the black community,
When he asked Congo missionaries for first-hand stories of carnage, one group sent him a thick envelope filled with stories and then escaped traveling to the United States. The group refused to speak to any reporter until they got to Chicago to meet with James.
“They were saving the story for Howard James,” he recalled the missionaries said as other reporters world-+wide sought to get the same interview.
When presidential candidate Robert Kennedy came to Chicago in 1968 he gained access to an exclusive interview by following Kennedy and his entourage from the street to the hotel’s penthouse prompting the candidate to turn and demand his name before granting him an interview.
He sat in a room with the brother of Martin Luther King on the evening the civil rights leader was gunned down in Memphis.
He won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1968 while at the Christian Science Monitor. His series on corruption and incompetence in the country’s judicial system was later published in book form entitled “Crisis in the Courts.”
And in the 1970s he reported and wrote extensively about troubled and abandoned youth, which led to two more books.
James’ drive, that was interpreted by some as aggressive, and his need to stir things up to get results, won him the respect of some of the top politicians in the country, say his family.
But despite offers to cover Washington, he refused.
“I wanted no part of Washington,“ he told his family. “It was as corrupt then as it is now.”
James made his way to the Oxford Hills by way of Berlin, N.H. where he went to meet the woman who would become his future wife while on a speaking tour that concluded in Portland, Maine after receiving a letter from a colleague of Judith’s with a job offer for editor of Judith’s paper.
After receiving and rejecting the letter as “ridiculous,” his mother convinced him to “go see that woman.”
He did and found a quiet place in the country surrounded by pine trees to write and to get to know Judith Munro, then a young widow with children.
Years later Judith said she found a letter her husband had written, but never sent her.
In part it read, “Mrs. Munro. I decline to take the position as editor. I will take the position of husband and father of you, of your children.”
Working for James was not always easy, say those who worked with him, but in the end it appeared there was great admiration and respect for the skills he instilled in many of his employees.
“.. at one point when I was editing the Berlin Reporter we had a revolving door of reporters coming and going in fast succession, and there was a nearly constant scramble with a small and often green staff to fill the pages on a daily basis,” said Greg Fish, now editor of the Penobscot Times who started working for James in 1995.
“On the other hand, by the time I got done working for Howard, I believe I was a far better writer then when I started. I wasn’t in his league, and I never will be, but from him I learned to work under pressure, how to dig for news stories that might otherwise have gone unreported, how to write a snappier lead, and so much more. I’m still applying the lessons he taught me today; I’m grateful I had the opportunity to learn from him,” Fish said.
Susan Arena agreed.
“Howard demanded a lot from everyone who worked for him, but, in return, he taught us a lot and earned our respect every step along the way,” she recalled this week.
Dundee Prat, who now lives in Florida, used to sell ads for James.
“He told me I had the true act of gab. Lol. I was never sure if he meant it as a compliment,” she wrote to the Advertiser Democrat Tuesday morning after hearing of her former boss’s passing.
Like others, Pratt praised James while acknowledging his toughness.
“Howard was a good man. He helped so many of us at the Advertiser. He
was definitely a man who was a task master, but taught me a lot about the paper business. I’ll always be grateful for my time working for him. RIP,” she wrote.
James taught countless young people in his employ and some in the Oxford Hills School District – where he fought with editorials to establish a comprehensive high school – the core values and skills he practised throughout his career.
But in the end, said his wife, James told his family that he believed his most important accomplishment had been raising his family.
“We’ve had a long and interesting life,” said James in his final days.