Peter Watson coaxed, cajoled and challenged me through my first daily newspaper job in Gloucester, an enclave on the Northeast coast of Massachusetts.
He died the other day at 73, fighting a brain tumor to the very end on Boston’s North Shore.
He was an inspiration to me and many others who traversed the newsroom of his Gloucester Daily Times in the 1970s and 1980s. I spent five years working under this man. He had a quick wit, a sharp editing pencil and a Mustang held together with duct tape in those years right after Watergate gave us that initial shot of journalism adrenalin.
“A real inspiration,” said Kevin Sullivan of Peter. Kevin was a colleague. He told Gloucester Times writer Gail McCarthy this week that Peter “put the fun in journalism. He had such infectious energy.”
That energy became a booster shot, propelling the Times, with a news staff of fewer than a dozen, a generation ago. The paper covered Gloucester, Rockport, Essex and Manchester with an enthusiasm and depth you rarely see today in any kind of media. Back then, we talked about journalism, not about cutting budgets, or embracing technology, or marketing special sections.
“Working at the Gloucester Daily Times under Peter was not about having a job,” said John Christie, who worked for Peter on two occasions. “It was about both the thrill and journalistic satisfaction of putting out a good newspaper that tried every day to be a great newspaper. And sometimes succeeded. Peter set the standard. He was ethical and hard working.”
Gloucester, a city of some 30,000 and replete with the Italian and Portuguese young men who labored in the declining fishing fleet, was a feast – no, make that a smorgasbord – for the senses. The smell of fresh, baked rolls at Virgilio’s suffused the morning air, later competing with the aroma of batter-cooked fishsticks at Gorton’s of Gloucester.
In the early summer, St. Peter’s Fiesta, a weekend-long block party, dominated the harbor environs. Young men competed for the honor of walking the greasy pole (climbing through actual axle grease), and capturing the flag at the very end, before plummeting into the dirty water. My friend John Christie of our staff tried it once and damn near killed himself, I recall.
And there were the characters. “Nucky” Rust would barge by the front desk and appear in the newsroom, barking about being evicted from his ramshackle house. Peter would calm him down and make him retreat. George Gleason, head of the Shellfish Commission, would sneak in to the newsroom with a bushel of uncooked steamed clams, leave them in the middle of the newsroom and then rush out to his idling truck outside. We took them home. They would spoil after all.
And Mayor Leo Alper, seeking election, would stand on the back of a flatbed truck during a parade and shout out expletives to hecklers.
Only in Gloucester, once described as “pound for pound, the grittiest city in America.”
Peter thrived through it all. He sailed 210s in Rockport Harbor. I was his mate for a while, but had troubled ducking when he yelled, “Come about!” He played pickup basketball before Barrack Obama made it fashionable. He and wife Pat and sons Seth and Jared entertained in their big blue house on the hill, with the boys sometimes playing waiters.
It also was a true learning newsroom under Peter. Coverage shaped issues and agendas, whether it was the troubles of the local football coach, or local police brutality, or community development.
Sure, we won awards. but we also won the community as a newspaper that was indispensable – from coverage of the Shellfish Commission to the local high school football team, the Fishermen. At one point, the GDT – as the paper was known to admiring and critical locals wilting under the paper’s scrutiny — had a circulation of more than 100 percent. More than two papers daily were purchased in some homes. Yes, the GDT stood for God-Damned Times as well as Gloucester Daily Times. Townspeople waited in our office for the paper to arrive each weekday.
Staffers thrived. Colleague Tony Mauro went on to cover the U.S. Supreme Court for Gannett. Kevin Sullivan went to the Washington Post where a Pulitzer Prize sits right there next to his name. John Christie became a fine editor in Fort Lauderdale and later a successful publisher in Augusta, Maine. Phil Hersh, one of my predecessors in sports, covered many Olympics for the Chicago Tribune.
We all probably stayed in Gloucester working for Peter longer than we should have. But the paltry pay was sure offset by the excitement of the little city on Cape Ann and by thriving in Peter’s journalism cocoon.
(Warren Watson is executive director of SABEW. He joined the Gloucester Daily Times in 1975 as sports editor, covering local and Boston sports, including the 1975 World Series between Boston and Cincinnati. In 1978, he became news editor and later city editor/ assistant to the editor. In 1980, he became Peter Watson’s peer as he was promoted to editor of the Daily Peabody Times, a sister publication in the Eseex County Newspapers group in Massachusetts.)
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