One of the most rewarding parts of working at a small newspaper is getting to know the cast of interesting characters who make up our faithful correspondents and readers. All newspapers have regulars who write and call frequently, but in a small community, it is possible to get to know them in an intimate way, either through direct contact or through the rich body of their contributions to the paper.
One of our more prolific correspondents, Conni Mac Lean Venturi, died recently after a colorful life – and 70 years of reading and writing to the Register. We can’t tell exactly how many letters she wrote over the years, but it’s well over 50 over the last decade alone, many on the topic of local theater – a matter dear to her heart as a lifelong actress. Many more were about her observations and various enthusiasms.
I never met Conni, but I and other readers could get a sense of her – breezy, eccentric, literate, and deeply concerned about the cultural life of her beloved home town. Her letters to the editor were like personal notes from a flighty and funny world-travelling friend.
Likewise, I have never met Barbara Ciapponi, but in her 40 or more letters over the last decade, she has chronicled her journey into old age, sometimes with remarkable frankness. She has also recalled, occasionally in bluntly sensual terms, her youth and her travels. Her letters are little essays and snatches of poetry that wouldn’t be out of place in a serious literary journal or anthology.
There are others I know better from phone, email and personal correspondence: among the many is Robert Wilkerson, a one-time “JFK Democrat” who expresses outrage at a party he sees drifting far to his left. Kevin Hangman, Jack Rannells, and the oft-confused Tom Johnson and Tom Johnston all come across as gruff and contrarian, but thoughtful and committed to their communities. From the left are skilled and provocative essayists such as Paul Moser and Steve Villano, and from even farther left, Green Party activist Alex Shantz is a developing voice of youthful idealism.
And of course, Carl G. White ranges widely in his monthly letters, from his encyclopedic knowledge of classic TV and movies, to his passionate opposition to the church practice of tithing, to his quirky relationship with Sophie the cat.
But many of the people we get to know in the newsroom rarely appear on the pages of the paper, people who call or email or write to comment, compliment, scold or just to chat. Sally, a retired nurse, calls often to point out errors or omissions in the paper but we always wind up having marvelous, wide-ranging chats. Skip, Elizabeth and David tend to send long, thoughtful and useful dissections of letters and articles, including deep legal and political analysis. Duane loves to share his pictures and observations from his mountain home, while Kurt and Mike send frequent updates from Upvalley from opposite fringes of the political divides up there.
Most comes in by email, but we get a surprising amount of correspondence by postal mail. When I first started as editor, an older gentleman in Napa wrote me several times to express his (polite) disapproval of my handling of the paper. He didn’t leave a phone number, but he did include his return address. I bought a card of the same size and shape as the ones he preferred and wrote him back, inviting his advice. We wound up having an extensive and civil correspondence that stretched out over several months because of the need for old-fashioned mail.
But the most eagerly awaited correspondence in the newsroom comes from someone who doesn’t sign her name or leave an address at all. For the most part she signs herself something like “Wide awake reader.” And she does not like what she reads, not one tiny bit.
The notes are invariably written on plain 5-by-7-inch note cards – always on the blank side. The lined side is reserved for our address and a stamp. Most are addressed to me, but just about everyone who gets a byline in the newsroom has received at least one. Sometimes several will arrive in a single day. It’s a rare month when we don’t get at least one. We think we know who it is – maybe a lady named Pam, according to one longtimer in the newsroom – but we’re not certain.
“I guess you try to pacify the silly women on your staff because they think they are reporters (?) and their stories are either banal meanderings or fairy tales cleverly spun + twisted to melt the hearts and wallets of naïve Napans,” she wrote in her spidery hand on a fairly typical recent missive.
She went on to attack several of her favorite topics – the homeless and any photograph in the newspaper where people are smiling (Not making this up: “We really do not relish looking at a bunch of teeth seemingly detached from what should be a human + all we see is the emptiness behind that very unappealing grimace.”)
Her other topics of wrath over the years? Immigrants, stories about children, and – most of all – dogs. She just hates dogs and the slightest mention of a dog in a story is a sure bet to set off a flurry of 5-by-7 notecards.
You’d think we’d hate getting this sort of criticism, but it’s become something of a badge of honor to get one of maybe-Pam’s letters. I wish I’d kept all of mine over the years because there is a sort of poetry to them.
And I really do wish maybe-Pam would leave a return address. I’d love to send her a nice 5-by-7 notecard thanking her for reading so faithfully.