A few days before Thanksgiving 1977, a not-so-recent college graduate from Red Sox country gazed from the state Thruway toward a city spread densely across hills overlooking the Mohawk River. Interesting-looking place, I thought – and my new home.
The city was Amsterdam. I was 23, thrilled and terrified. The Amsterdam Recorder had hired me as a cub reporter, so I had just achieved a key life ambition – someone was going to pay me to write. But I knew no one, and most of what I knew about New York came from maps.
I didn’t know sheriffs were a real thing outside of Wyoming and John Ford westerns. I didn’t know county governments are critical cogs in providing services to New York residents. Couldn’t spell Chuctanunda.
But kindly Recorder editor Stan Silvernail was willing to take a chance on me. He once told me he’d spent most of career at the Recorder, when all he meant to do was stay long enough for a “cup of coffee” – but then life happened and time passed.
Now here I am, thinking much the same thing, after more than 42 years at the Gazette.
After just over a year at the Recorder, then-Gazette Amsterdam bureau reporter Steve Talbott, a Recorder alumnus who had gotten to know me and my work, suggested we ride to a Fonda Village Board meeting together. There was an opening, he said, and he had already put in a good word with then-Managing Editor John E.N. Hume III.
This week, after 15,515 days on the Gazette payroll and maybe 17,000 bylines, I’m hanging up my keyboard. I’ll be done with deadlines and nocturnal city council meetings and frustrating waits for carefully crafted responses from police departments and state agencies. I reserve the right to write when it suits me.
When the Gazette bought the Recorder in late 2019 — a rescue from likely death — and my byline started appearing there again from time to time, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe the circle of life was completing. Now here I am, contemplating the end of a career that began when Jimmy Carter was still a breath of fresh air in politics.
So what, you might ask, have I learned, other than to avoid deadlines and city council meetings that are going to take longer to sit through than to write?
Back in that lonely winter of 1977-78, I learned about the importance of factual accuracy by going through the Amsterdam police blotter each morning in the shallow light of 7 a.m. and then printing who got ticketed and for what in the paper that afternoon – if you messed it up, you heard about it quickly.
Even better training for keeping it accurate and watching your spelling was taking obits over the phone from funeral directors with names like Jendrzejczak.
But that was then and this is now, as my wife likes to say. You pretty much have to be accused of a violent felony to get your name in the paper now. Obits long ago became family-penned tributes, opportunities for my on-the-job training have slipped away from the next generation of newshounds.
I remember calling state Sen. Hugh Farley at home the day after Thanksgiving 1977, certain no public official would want to be called at home on Black Friday – but the legendary Farley talked to me gladly for 20 minutes about my assigned topic, whether home heating oil should be exempt from state sales tax. First significant interview, first byline.
A lesson: If you’ll listen, people will talk – those words should be on a poster on the wall in any classroom where journalism is taught.
As long as I’m passing along journalistic advice: A reporter should have the ability to land on their feet in a strange new situation, and a knack for becoming calmer and more focused when the pressure is on. And not mind letting people yell at them. It’s seldom personal. Once yellers calm down, that’s when to start listening.
At the Recorder I wrote a four-part series about dairy farming and the travails of fluctuating milk prices, giving me a taste for the satisfactions of explanatory journalism and intellectually grappling with competing ideas. That will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Since the Gazette hired me in January 1979 and I had my first byline – about plans for a massive power transmission line through rural communities that never got built – I have worked in bureaus in Cobleskill (the haunting beauty of the northern Catskills), Ballston Spa (haunted by its mineral springs resort and industrial mill past), and Saratoga Springs (haunted by horses).
Then – as bureaus were shuttered after the Great Recession and the economic decline of newspapers was well underway – in the Schenectady office. I haunt the Schenectady office.
To backtrack, I bought a house. In 1985, I was in a friend’s wedding party and met a bridesmaid from Rensselaer County and suddenly I had a use for all my spare time and a reason to think I might stay in New York a little longer. Thousands of morning cups of Stewart’s coffee later, here I still am.
Among the fascinating stories I’ve covered has been the 1983 murder trial of Dawn Cruickshank for killing her wealthy Clifton Park real estate developer dad, amid a bitter divorce and accusations of incest (she was convicted of manslaughter).
Totally different: There was the decade-plus of covering Saratoga County supervisors pushing to build a solid waste landfill that wasn’t really needed – the classic “story that will never end.”
There were the two federal corruption trials of the late state Sen. Joe Bruno, whom common folk continued to love long after federal prosecutors encircled him with their gill nets.
More recently, I was lead reporter most days on coverage of the 2018 Schoharie limousine crash, a tragedy that killed 20 people who shouldn’t have died. Within the first 48 hours, I broke news about the gap in federal regulations that stretch limousines drive through, and soon thereafter on the checkered safety record of the rural intersection. The legal and legislative repercussions of the senseless crash are still playing out, nearly three years later.
Another: Simply because I was the reporter who covered government in the central Saratoga County town of Malta, I stumbled into the biggest economic development project for the Capital Region maybe since Thomas Edison scouted the Rotterdam river flats: GlobalFoundries.
Today, 3,000 people work at a $15 billion complex making computer chips. They’ve been drawn not just from the local workforce but from tech centers in Texas, Oregon and California, and from dozens of countries around the world. New lessons in celebrating diversity have come with its arrival.
But first there were years of sturm and drang, and thousands of words devoted to the big question between the deal-making in 2006 and groundbreaking in 2009 – would the chipmaker follow-through, or wouldn’t it? The answer was by no means certain.
For a while, for a guy who cut his teeth spelling Jendrzejczak and taking pride in a well-told story about wastewater treatment plant upgrade financing, I tracked the chipmaking industry like a kestrel tracks a chipmunk. I had industry sources, I was dialing into CEO conference calls. Malta’s downtown and suburban redevelopment happened before my eyes.
But job responsibilities changed, and I shifted to learning about the inner turmoil of Schenectady County’s towns, the state Legislature, and our regional congressional delegation. Our Congress folk have ranged from leading progressive to hard conservative, so someone is always unhappy. But through the changes, there was always Saratoga County coverage, in my life and in my blood.
I wrote a popular column called Off the Northway for a decade or so, exploring the unique stories of Saratoga County’s past and present in a way that breaking news stories simply couldn’t. That was a career high point.
A joking ambition was that someday I would have written about every community in the region, and maybe I have. I’ve lost track.
Some of the great fun stories have involved visits to the Adirondacks, whether to write about cutting-edge medical research in Saranac Lake, the state’s acquisition of new wild forest tracts, or the dash and dance of the Lake George Polar Plunge.
There will be more time for lingering in the Adirondacks now, and for appreciation of nature, bike trails, boning up on my cooking skills. Maybe some travel. I just haven’t found out where to yet.
I’ve never forgotten that the job is to ferret out the truth, give readers a peek into the world beyond their own experience, work to put daily developments into their larger context – and cover the sense of history and vibrancy of vision that makes the Capital Region unlike anywhere else. It has been an honor and pleasure.
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Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County
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Mr. Williams, thank you.
Thank you, Steve.
Journalism today may be one of the most maligned professions one could choose, as multiple factions clamor for their piece of “justice”. The messenger is too often the first casualty (and too often the culprit). We’re fortunate here in the Capital region to have some very good quality journalists which, I think, can have a real trickle-down effect in keeping the social ship on course and the train on the tracks, and the door on the hinges, etc, etc…
Congratulations on your retirement from a most worthy tradition, and well-done.
Thank you Steve for your wonderful years of local reporting at the Gazette. Make it an active, healthy retirement.