by Ross W. Taylor
An Address Upon the Occasion of Celebrating Don Russell’s Completion of 25 Years
At The Mountain Messenger, October 25, 2015
LEGAL NOTICE: All persons mentioned below, as in fact most people I know, are fictitious and entirely products of the reader’s imagination.
I first met Don Russell in April of 1990 or ’91 while he and his then partners were setting up the new regime at The Mountain Messenger, which was in the same location it is now, although at that time it still had some unfortunate signs of the long-term residence of several cats. I was in hopes of finding some work, and I was pleased to see a number of Macintosh computers being installed. I was also curious about the new editor.
Don was certainly easy to talk to and I soon learned that he had some real experience working for big city newspapers; so big and famous that I was rather intimidated. I was able to counter that I had once been in the printing plant of the San Francisco Chronicle, although I never did master the art of folding one of those newspaper hats the press-men wore. Don then went on to talk at remarkable length about his time fishing on Puget Sound. I thought that this wasn’t such a great qualification for his new responsibilities in the gold country. He was quick to correct that impression too, assuring me that in the 1970s he had been a long-term resident of Relief Hill, a bustling Nevada County metropolis that I equated with our own community of Howland Flat. Then I heard some more about commercial fishing.
I also learned that Don was very interested in politics and planned for the paper to offer considerably more detail about county meetings and activities than it had been used to carry. He wanted to know if I would be interested in helping cover these events. I think my shudder gave me away. Don was interested, however, in my abilities with Macintosh computers and newspaper graphics and as a result I have worked irregularly for the newspaper ever since, although I think Don would consider the word irregularly to be a considerable understatement and to encompass several meanings.
When not talking about fishing or politics, Don also likes to talk about cars. In fact, his car is what first brought him to the attention of most Sierra County residents. People tended to notice a goateed man wearing a cowboy hat driving around in a thirty-five-year-old Volvo sedan. In time, the more politically active would spot its arrival and begin to tremble. I was never sure if that was because Don might ridicule their opinions in the newspaper or they simply feared he might offer them a ride in the Volvo.
Don isn’t the first celebrity to turn heads when going back to his hometown, but I’m pretty sure that he was the first to revisit the Motor City while driving a freshly painted, forty-year-old, bright red Volvo 240. I think the red paint had been on sale.
I believe Don once actually paid all of five hundred bucks for one of his cars, but that was the usual premium for getting four-wheel-drive. A series of Volvos was eventually replaced by a series of Subarus, which disappointed many a local as they provided less warning of trouble’s arrival. There was even a gas-guzzling Dodge Ramcharger for winter travel for a time, although it actually tended to spin like a lazy susan whenever it got near a slick road surface. He now, of course, generally moves around in a nondescript Buick, having gotten it from his then ninety-two-year-old mother when it became too old for her to drive.
I have ridden along with Don through at least the fringes of major forest fires and alongside disastrous floods on roads that were either crumbling into the riverbed or at least partially blocked by fallen and burning trees. The worries of such ventures down officially closed roads were calmed by the driver’s happy recollection of netting salmon in huge quantities near the Canadian line. I was less calmed to be in a thirty-five-year-old car repaired whenever an even older newspaper editor had the time to get out his wrenches. These exciting events were generally followed by a memorable edition of the newspaper featuring a front page photograph of a county supervisor handing over a piece of paper and shaking hands with someone.
I suppose I should talk some more about the history. The paper had been put out using a couple of Compugraphic phototypesetting machines before Don’s arrival. To use these, you typed in an article and it produced a column of type on photographic paper. If you had made a typo, or had to change anything, you got out an Exacto knife and cut the incorrect item out and pasted in the corrected text rather than retyping the whole thing. Don’s arrival ushered in the new age of laser printing from text entered into computers where typos were easily corrected in Quark Xpress. The new setup consisted of a used Macintosh IIcx with a huge 19-inch black and white monitor and two Mac Classics. These looked like the original Macs from 1984 but were much better machines. They actually included 10 megabyte hard disks! For the purposes of comparison, I bought a five-Terabyte hard drive a couple of months ago that holds 500,000 times as much data. Note that I said black and white monitor—it displayed black dots or white dots, gray wasn’t available. The screens on the Classics were all of seven inches wide.
A few years later Don was forced to use one of the Classics for a day or two while its replacement was being repaired. He swore he would never complain about the newer machine’s lack of speed again. Today the paper’s ten-year-old machines are increasingly incompatible with the rest of the computing world and the paper may be forced to upgrade its software from the 1994 version.
For over twenty years Don got up in the wee small hours every Thursday morning to take the newspaper ‘boards’ to Quincy, timing the journey to arrive before most of the staff at Feather River Publications, an even longer and tougher chore when the worst storms of the winter seemed to arrive on Thursdays. The ‘boards’ were each page of the paper pasted up ready to be photographed before being burned onto the lithographic plates that would be used on the press. Today the pages are e-mailed the night before and the folks in Quincy produce the plates directly from the computer images, allowing a welcome extra hour or more of sleep. The paper still has to be picked up and distributed and Thursdays are still long and task-filled days.
The twentieth century actually ended before the newspaper began converting to digital photography. Pictures in the ’90s were taken on black and white film and developed and printed in the Messenger’s small darkroom and only then pasted onto the ‘boards.’ Ken Beaver took care of that chore for the paper and did a great job for all that time. When Ken was unavailable, Gordie Bell stepped in and did very considerable service for the week or two Ken would be gone. If your grandchild’s picture didn’t come out well in the paper, don’t blame them. It is almost impossible to get all the photos in a single issue to come out well in a standard print run between the several photographers and wildly different exposures on the various pictures.
I helped Don find the paper’s first digital camera, a remarkably professional used camera that featured a whole megabyte per picture and a real pro detachable flash unit. He is still muttering about losing it because newer units feature a crummy built-in flash and outrage him by providing too many pixels.
The years also brought the internet and networked computers. There is not much nostalgia for the years of carrying floppy disks, and later, Zip disks, between computers, but the network tends to be way too likely to break when you really need it. The internet brought e-mail, spam, and the ability to send the paper to the printer electronically. It also brought regular correspondence from the mild, the community-oriented, the weird, and the deranged. It did cut down on the consumption of fax paper.
Speaking of paper, I’m reminded of the billing. The original Macs were sold with the hope that you would buy an Apple impact dot matrix printer to go with it. The paper had one and it was used to prepare the bills on pre-printed four-part NCR paper. Don loved this system and was absolutely resistant to converting to a laser-printed billing system. There were years of increasingly awkward work-arounds running cables between rooms each week, firing up a 12-year-old computer that still had the necessary Appletalk interface, and moving files with zip disks between the current machine and its long-obsolete predecessor before the old system was abandoned. Something like four different very old printers had been involved and new ink ribbons had become unavailable. It should be noted that Don still owns more typewriters than most modern day national governments.
Don is a people person and has interacted with an extraordinarily large number of the county’s residents over the years. All of the county supervisors have changed two or three times and all but one of the department heads, or two, or three, or so, depending on how one counts Tim Beals. The Messenger staff, which is strictly speaking only two, but sometimes includes me and a few others, has changed more than once as well.
Liz Fisher helped Don take over in the early 90s and can still be counted on to provide great aid in times of need, usually at very considerable inconvenience to herself. Damaris Harbert labored in the office for more than a decade, frequently not only alone in the building but without any idea of where Don was or when he would return. This was always difficult because people would keep calling or popping in to see him and she couldn’t answer their questions. She learned the answer to the most reasonable questions in self-defense. She somehow kept producing the bulk of the paper’s day to day work and on Wednesday Don would sit down and put it all together with her help. Nancy Carnahan suffered through much the same thing for a few more years and now Jill does the work and even manages to produce a new issue if Don is out of town. Mary Johnsen, the institution’s famous ‘resident shrink’, has unfortunately moved away, but was a long-time provider of copy-proofing assistance as well as producing a regular column and offering other help as needed.
Pancho Wilmarth, Carolyn Dobbs, and Al Pratti are now all gone, but wrote weekly columns for the paper for many years and each was memorable in their own right, providing recollections of people and times long past. I’m pretty sure Don never met Tom Magliotti, but Don was responsible for getting Click and Clack into the Messenger each week and their column seems a little lost without the brotherly rivalry between the two men. I should mention here that Click and Clack is sponsored by Parts for Imports, which has continued with its support for all these years. They are a small, independent auto parts firm that is able and happy to supply parts for domestic vehicles as well as imports, particularly for cars newer than Don’s.
While I’m indulging in a commercial break, I’d like to mention The Bookseller. They no longer advertise with the Mess but were quick to sign up when Don first added the crossword to the paper and they stuck with the newspaper for over twenty years while suffering increasing competition from superstores and on-line retailers. They’re on Mill Street in Grass Valley.
I should probably mention DeVita and even the Prospect, but since we can’t spell his name to his satisfaction I won’t. It’s not our fault he’s silent-vowel-challenged.
There are a number of other persons that have passed that I met and got to know by hanging out with Don that played a part in the history of the Mess. Ed Carrier, who would come out with a smile and a pleasant word or two each week when the new Messenger arrived in Sierra City. Don Bowling, who was perhaps the most efficient ever chairperson on the Board of Supervisors. Bob Bowling, who laughed at Messenger jokes over the dangers of telephones for years and would, after his retirement, meet Don for breakfast together in Quincy on the occasional Thursday. Nevada “Babe” Lewis, whose politics I found frustrating, but our friendship with Don caused me to end up laughing with on a rare occasion when we both found ourselves agreeing on a ‘boondoggle’ waste of tax-dollars issue. Rick Clough, who offered support with late night provisions of the brewer’s art, was a highly valued companion on several hilarious expeditions across the neighboring state of Nevada. Bookman Cooper, whose real first name was Warren, became a friend of Don’s in grade school and was good enough to provide a weekly column detailing the follies of the professional athletes we watch on TV on Sunday afternoons. Warren could be counted on to pick Don up at the airport whenever he flew back to Detroit. Some of you may have met him at one of the annual Chili Cook-offs.
Through the years Don has kept in touch with the editors of neighboring and competing newspapers and with at least the offices of our state and federal legislators, as well as meeting and interviewing most of those legislators and frequently the principal candidates for those offices when seriously contested. The Messenger has been surprised more than once over the performance of our office-holders. Sometimes that surprise has even been a pleasant one.
It has been interesting to see the people that want to visit with Don. I have been astonished to discover people displaying great interest and knowledge in local politics who I never thought to follow such things at all. At other times people seem to either be indifferent to fairly significant changes or trends in this part of the world and then remarkably worked up over things that probably won’t affect them at all. Whether you like Don or hate him, agree or disagree, write a letter to the editor. There’s a lot of white space to fill.