Last week was a week to stir my inky memories. Prominent on my calendar was the STARS (Seattle Times Retirees) meeting. Former staffers gather twice each year (Veteran’s Day and April 15). We dine, listen to a guest speaker from the newsroom, and renew newsroom friendships. Those ties are fast ones: There’s nothing like bonds formed when putting out a first draft of history seven days a week.
This year’s STARS reunion was different. Given the risks of catching the coronavirus, our November’s meeting was held, not at a local restaurant, but during a Zoom session. Former Executive Editor Mike Fancher served as emcee while former Times Editor Dave Boardman, now dean of Klein College of Media at Temple University, was hosting.
Dave had been my editor when I first went to work at the Times April 4, 1991. I’d been hired — you might say “poached” — along with my four-times-a-week city column from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Given a desk in the Times newsroom, I would continue to turn out columns while getting to know and mostly love Times’ staffers for the next 12 years.
We had our fun rituals during those years: tending a snow globe collection of cheesy souvenirs purchased on foreign trips and vacations. There were pog-offs, contests of skill tossing milk bottle caps, and hiding out in the newsroom’s “dead zone” so the desk editor wouldn’t spot you and send you to cover a Third Avenue shooting.
During this STARS meeting, I recalled antics in the 1990s and early 2000s. But mostly I got to listen to our speaker, none other than Frank Blethen, who has just celebrated his 34th year as publisher. In my Times years, Blethen had often been a morning newsroom visitor. He would perch on a corner of my desk and even suggest the odd item I might want to pursue.
He said the Times entered the past decade “in as precarious a position as it’s ever been,” but now is in far better financial shape. At a time when many regions of the country are news deserts, he said the Seattle Times has been rated among the top 5-10 papers in the country. News operations, including the New York Times, have come to Seattle to be coached on the Times’ program to tap corporate and foundation funding to underwrite areas such as education, homelessness, and transportation. He gave credit to former staffer Sharon Chan who worked to set up these sponsorships and since has been lured away to the New York paper.
Taking a question from former assistant managing editor Carole Carmichael about his family, the publisher reported he’s just celebrated a 75th birthday and means to stick around another five years. He’s worked with the fifth generation of the family and affirms they remain strong on never selling the paper. He now can count 10 grandchildren and two great grandchildren, one named “Dusty” after himself.
Dusty? Why, I asked, had I never heard him called Dusty? Blethen told how when he was six, his parents were having a bitter divorce. He’d just arrived home from a horseback lesson, so covered in dirt his instructor had called him “Dusty.”
Frank, whose father was also named Frank Blethen, says his mom declared, “That’s great. I never want to hear that other name again.” He added, “To the family, I’m still known as Dusty. Frank’s just my stage name.”