by Deborah Steele Hazen
The numeral “30” with dashes on either side has been used by generations of journalists to indicate the end of a story.
Some say it started with telegraphic shorthand to signify the end of a transmission during the Civil War era. Another theory is that it originated when stories were written in longhand: X marked the end of a sentence, XX the end of a paragraph, and XXX – the Roman numeral for 30 – meant the end of a story.
This week’s paper is the end of the story for me as editor, publisher and owner of The Chief.
Several months ago, after much thought and consultation with my husband Phil, our three adult children and their spouses, I made the painful, difficult and tearful decision to seek a buyer for The Chief, which has been owned and operated by four generations of my family, the Steele family, for 92 years.
The main reason for this decision is that my husband and I are in our mid-60s. We have worked for our family businesses for over 40 years. Unless you’ve operated your own business in a small town, you probably can’t fully understand what that means. And, yes, in case you haven’t heard, Phil is selling Hazen Hardware, too.
To be brief – we’re tired. We have not had “normal” working lives, but we would like to have something resembling a “normal” retirement. We have often worked six or seven days a week. Vacations have been few, brief and far between.
“But, she’s written all of those ‘Tridents’ about their travels,” you may say. Yes, but with two exceptions in the last 30 years, those once-or-twice-a-year trips have been four or five-day weekends, leaving after we got The Chief to the press for that week, and coming back before deadline day for the next week. The two exceptions were each a full week long plus a weekend on either end. I worked long and hard before each of those widely-separated two weeks, and with much added work by family and staff members, to be able to be gone for an entire issue of the paper.
Those “travel Tridents” were written in the car or on the plane heading back home, where I was facing another deadline. I have never in my life had a vacation that was longer than nine or 10 days – counting weekends on either end of a work week.
When I spent two days in the hospital following major reconstructive foot surgery in 2003, I scheduled it after the paper came out that week, and was working from home in time for the next edition. Ditto, shoulder surgery a few years ago.
Our son Adam figures that, if I were a “normal” employee who received two weeks of vacation time a year and overtime for more than 40 hours per week, The Chief owes me 6562.5 days of accrued vacation and “comp” time.
I don’t think I’m going to get it.
A Relentless Master
While I was put to work as a child – along with my sister Dayle – doing various tasks at The Chief office – as was Phil at the hardware store – I officially became part of The Chief staff in the summer of 1968 after graduating from high school. I worked for The Chief during college vacations for the next four years. I also worked for my college newspaper to earn tuition.
On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend in 1972 – at the end of my senior year at Portland State – my grandmother Malvina Steele suffered a heart attack at her desk at The Chief office and died that night. She was 67, and she was almost blind from retina detachments, followed by not very successful surgeries.
She had worked at The Chief with her husband, Art Steele, for 50 years, since she had married him at the age of 18, about nine months after he came to town in February of 1922. He was a few months short of his 26th birthday when he bought the paper for $10 and assumed the debt on the Linotype machine.
The morning after my grandmother died, while my grandfather was setting type for the next week’s issue – (our family has not allowed ourselves to take time off for mourning) – he asked me if I would come and take my grandmother’s place on the paper. Having no definite plans for after college, I said I would. I thought it would be temporary. Spending my life working for The Chief was not my goal.
About a year and a half later, I got married, and about a year after that I was pregnant with triplets. They were born in May of 1975. I took four years off from working outside the home until my children turned four. Taking care of infant and toddler triplets is not exactly leisurely. During those four years I was also working about 15 hours a week, during triplet naps, as a writer for both The Chief and The Oregon Journal.
In 1979, I went back to work at The Chief office – at first about three and a half days a week, gradually increasing to full-time and more.
While my grandfather continued to greet people at the front desk of The Chief until he suffered a stroke in the mid-1980s, when he was in his late 80s, my father, Gail Steele, and, secondarily myself, along with a couple of great staff members, were doing the work.
Few people realize that my grandparents were considering selling The Chief in the late 1960s when they had reached – in my grandfather’s case, surpassed – retirement age. However, at their request, my father agreed in 1968 to come back from Madras, where he had served for six years in the more lucrative position as editor of The Madras Pioneer.
My father began having health problems when he was in his 50s in the mid-1980s. First two subdural hematomas – blood clots between the brain and skull – which required emergency surgeries and a couple of months of recovery time. Then, a series of skin cancer surgeries, followed in his 60s by retina detachments and surgeries, like his mother.
Those times – with all the responsibility for the paper suddenly on my shoulders, my father hospitalized with an uncertain prognosis, children at home needing my attention, an unhappy marriage falling apart – were some of the worst in my life.
Trying to keep enough mental concentration to write accurate news stories and editorials on complicated topics, plus the other aspects of running a business – while you’re worried sick – is an emotional hell that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
In the summer of 1993, right after the triplets graduated from high school, my father – who was already blind in one eye, but otherwise appeared to be a hail and hearty 69-year-old, still enjoying the challenges and rewards of publishing The Chief – suffered an almost fatal heart attack at his desk and went totally and permanently blind when his good eye hemorrhaged as a result of the blood thinners he was given while the doctors attempted to clear the blockage in his heart.
“You’ve got to finish getting the bills out,” he told me as they wheeled him on a gurney out of the office and into the ambulance. He repeated that instruction in the emergency room at St. John Medical Center in Longview right before he “flat-lined.” And, again, as they were wheeling him from the ambulance that had taken him, after he had been stabilized at St. John’s, to St. Vincent’s in Portland for angioplasty.
“Yes, Daddy, I will!” And, I did. Once he was stable enough for me to leave the hospital, completing the manual task of putting the bills in envelopes and stamping them was easy.
But, it’s hard to concentrate on writing city council, school board and PUD stories on a laptop computer while sitting in the hospital emergency ward with your loved ones on a bed beside you, hovering between life and death. I’ve had to do that numerous times with my parents and my great Aunt Sue – who was like another grandmother to me. I have had to write for this newspaper while sitting by their deathbeds. I have had to leave their deathbeds to get this paper to the press, and I still feel the guilt and regret of that.
It’s hell – publishing a newspaper under such circumstances – and I don’t want to put my loved ones through it.
I was a few months short of my 43rd birthday with triplets going off to college when my father suffered his major heart attack and went blind in 1993, and I assumed the full responsibility of publishing and editing The Chief. I never felt like I had any other choice.
Keeping The Chief alive and owned by the family made it possible for my father to receive a small pension, and the business paid my parents’ medical insurance. Their very modest savings were quickly eaten up by medical deductibles and huge prescription costs. It was the least I could do for my parents, who deserved much more.
My father died six years later in 1999, and my mother, who sold ads for The Chief and helped out in various ways for many years, died in 2005. By that time, it was really too late to start a new career – even if I’d wanted to.
A Rich Life
While it has been a relentless master, I don’t want to make it sound like being a reporter/photographer/editor/publisher/payroll clerk/bookkeeper/janitor for The Chief for most of the last 46 years – exactly half of the time our family has owned it – hasn’t been rewarding in many ways.
It’s just that as an independent, small-town newspaper, The Chief can’t afford enough staff for back-up for emergencies, sick leaves or even vacations. And, it’s not the kind of a job that you can just pull someone into quickly without extensive training.
The emphasis in that last paragraph is on “independent.” Small-town papers that are part of a chain have economies of scale that independents don’t have. In recent weeks, as the new owners – who will speak for themselves in next week’s edition – have met with our daughter Amanda Moravec, who is staying on along with another present staff member Cindy Bloomer, we can already see how there are many advantages to operating a newspaper that is part of a larger group.
There are reasons – other than the dedication and perseverance of four generations of our family – that we now hold the record as the longest-operating independent, family-owned newspaper in the state. Most people aren’t that crazy.
But Amanda’s and Cindy’s continued presence at The Chief office – which will stay in its present location – will provide a wealth of background knowledge, a link to the historic perspective of The Chief, and familiar faces for our readers and advertisers.
Some years ago, an administrator – now long gone – of one of our local government entities, a highly-educated and well-paid individual, told me he assumed I was a millionaire since I had inherited a newspaper. “I’m Debbie Steele, not Patty Hearst,” I told him. This is The Clatskanie Chief, not the Hearst publishing empire.
About four years ago, I wrote an editorial explaining how unfair Oregon’s minimum corporate tax – which imposes a tax based on total revenues, not profits – is for small businesses, which often run on a break-even basis, and whose owners frequently don’t make minimum wage.
If you have total sales of $200,000, and your expenses – payroll, utilities, taxes, supplies, other services needed to run your business and charitable donations – also total about the same amount, how is it that you get rich?
My editorial on the minimum corporate tax prompted a young public employee – who makes a lot more money than either myself or any member of my family or staff ever has – to accuse me of trying to portray myself as a martyr. That ticked me off.
Some people are fully convinced of the idea – both laughable and infuriating – that because you own a business and make contributions to the community, it must mean you’re rich.
My paychecks have not been large – and I’m not getting rich selling the business – but it’s never been about the money for our family.
Our lives have been rich in the ways that my parents and grandparents taught me are much more important than financial wealth.
Operating The Chief has been an interesting, challenging, intellectually-stimulating career. We have met fascinating people – some good, some bad – many who are influential in this corner of Oregon and some whose power goes into the wider world. We are proud of the fact that we have earned the respect of most of them.
Running the weekly newspaper that serves northern Columbia County and eastern Clatsop County has given us the opportunity to make what we believe is a positive difference in our communities. We have been able to advocate for many great programs and projects. Even just providing a means for local residents to communicate with each other has allowed our family to be participants in the many good things that have happened here over the past 92 years.
We have practiced a style of journalism that advocates for what we believe is beneficial to the majority of the people who live here, and which will provide a good quality of life for the generations to come.
We have tried not to sensationalize issues or to create controversy, but when controversy has occurred we haven’t shied away from it.
Like my father and grandfather before me, I have carried on the old-fashioned newspaper tradition of a front page editorial column. While I have tried to stay positive most of the time, like my predecessors, I have occasionally taken a stand with which not all of our readers agree. And, like my father and grandfather, I have made some enemies because of it.
My grandfather used to boast that he had never printed a “retraction.” I’m not quite sure how he defined that. From time to time, my staff and I have made some unintentional factual errors, and when I have become aware of them, I’ve corrected them and apologized.
But I stand by the editorials I’ve written and the decisions I’ve made about the way we’ve covered various stories. I don’t enjoy being hated or attacked for doing my job and expressing my beliefs, but I stand by them.
For the past 46 years, I have reported the truth as I have been given the ability to discern it.
I have done my best.
It has been an honor and a privilege to do so.
The Best Things
Next to the feeling that my family and I have served our community well, the best thing about working for this family newspaper, is having had the privilege of sharing the experience with four generations of my family – my grandparents, my parents, my children and my grandchildren. Sometimes it’s been difficult, but it’s been a very special thing.
All three of my children – Amanda Moravec, Adam Wehrley and Erika Weisensee – worked for The Chief on and off as they were growing up and during their college years.
After her daughter Madeline – the eldest of my eight grandchildren – was born 14 years ago, Amanda began driving to Clatskanie with the baby on Monday mornings and staying over until Wednesday mornings, taking on the roles of advertising and production manager at The Chief.
About 18 months later she gave birth to Jonathan on deadline night. We gave her that issue off, but she was back with both the baby and the toddler in tow the next week. Several years later – to my great joy – Amanda and her husband Michael decided to move their family to Clatskanie.
With my mid-20th century mind, I don’t know how we would have survived the continous changes in publishing technology over the past decade and a half without her.
In December of 2011, Deana Bergman, one of the several dedicated, long-term non-family members of our staff who have been so important to the success of The Chief over the years, died suddenly and at much too young an age.
At that time, our son Adam, his wife Molly and their children had returned from South America where he had been teaching in a seminary. They were available to come help out at The Chief. We did some job description shifting, and for the past two and a half years, Adam and Molly have been invaluable – Adam taking on much of the hard news and sports reporting and photography, as well as occasional “Trident” editorial columns, and Molly taking the primary responsibility for accounts receivable and website maintenance, as well as customer service and press day duties – driving to Astoria to pick up the paper – (a job Phil had done every Wednesday morning for years) – labeling, inserting, mailing, completing the complicated postal forms, etc.
As I have begun to see my stamina waning, Adam and Molly, in addition to Amanda and Cindy, have been the glue that has held our family’s operation of The Chief together.
In the last year or two, our three oldest grandchildren – Madeline and Jonathan Moravec and Natasha Wehrley – have begun helping out on press day and with other errands. Natasha’s younger siblings – Elias, Ana and Elsie – also frequent the office.
While our daughter Erika is a former University of Portland writing instructor and a successful freelance writer, and has formerly written for The Chief, she is now the dedicated mother of two small boys (Owen and Henry), and is tied to the Portland area because her husband Alex Weisensee is involved in his fourth-generation, 93-year family business.
At this point I must also recognize and express gratitude to some of the wonderful and dedicated non-family staff members who have helped make our long tenure with The Chief possible. Dating back to my childhood there was Harold Pascoe, and in my first years as a working member of the staff, Ted Karasti and Gloria Osterloh; in the ensuing years, Marguerite Erickson, Sandi Erickson, Deana Bergman, Betty Mayfield, Ruth Howard, Sharon Uerling and Cindy Bloomer. There were other, shorter-term, employees to whom we are also grateful.
We have enjoyed mentoring numerous students, who became important members of our staff before moving on to other things – among them John Robinson, Brian Perkins, Cyndi Edmonds, Stephanie Palmrose, Veronica Willson and Annie Hulegaard.
Carole Kelley was essential to our sports coverage for about a decade – part of that time as a volunteer. Another volunteer and frequent submitter of articles and photographs to help us better cover the cultural and organizational life of this community has been my “brother in spirit,” Ernie Carman. Joanne Booth corresponded for us in the Rainier area when we first expanded our coverage there.
When I came to the painful conclusion several months ago that I needed to retire, of course I offered The Chief to my children – individually or together – but they do not want to own it. I understand that perfectly. I have never wanted them to feel trapped into committing their lives to this undertaking. While I have no doubts about their abilities and talents to do it, I also understand, as I have explained, the downside of operating an independent small-town paper in this day and age. I wouldn’t want them to make the sacrifices that are required.
So, I sent out inquiries to a couple of family-owned newspaper chains, which I felt had the ability to sustain a newspaper for the communities served by The Chief. In Country Media, I believe I have found the best possible alternative to a Steele-family-operated Chief.
The Chief will change, certainly. A newspaper reflects the personalities of the people who create it, but change is inevitable. I hope you will give the new owners and operators your business and support.
Since word has gotten around about Phil’s and my retirements, we have had many people ask us if we are leaving the community. Of course not! Our roots are very deep here. This is the town we grew up in and which we love. We like the climate. We want to continue living in the 100-year-old home that has sheltered six generations of our family.
I will remain involved with the volunteer activities which have been almost as big a part of my life as The Chief. I will do some freelance writing, researching and consulting. Steve Hungerford, the president of Country Media, has graciously offered me the opportunity to occasionally submit a column. I may take him up on that. Since I will no longer be a slave to a weekly deadline, I hope I will be a better wife, mother, grandmother, friend and volunteer.
Phil will no longer have the ability to open the store at odd hours to help people with hardware emergencies – something that happens frequently – but he will continue to be the wonderful husband, father, grandfather, friend, citizen and performer of random acts of kindness that he has always been.
So, The Chief will survive, and I will begin a new phase of life with the man I love even more intensely than I did when we were married 26 years ago. We had our wedding night – one night – at home alone together before resuming our busy lives as parents of 13-year-old triplets and the owners/operators of two small businesses. A rather belated honeymoon trip may be in our future.
Finally, as I end the story of my life with The Chief, thank you for all the support, all the encouraging words you have given me and our family over the years. It has meant more than I can say.