An old-fashioned newspaperman

I was asked to write a tribute to the late chief editorial writer of the Albany Times-Union, Jim McGrath. Here it is.

-- Robert Whitcomb

I was born a decade before Jim McGrath but he always seemed a member of my generation ofthe dwindling group we usually called “newspapermen’’ (not “journalists’’). And that’s not just because of his, shall we say, relaxed sartorial standards and love of certain watering holes as venues for creative conversation and fact-finding.

He was from Boston (where his father was a newspaper printer!) and his dedication to making anews story, a column or an editorial  as good as it could be in the face of unforgiving deadlines, along with his conviviality and sense of humor, reminded me of what I first experienced during my time as a Boston newspaperman for two now-long-dead newspapers – the Record American and Herald Traveler. We had a lot of joy despite the daily work pressures  in those days, albeit often doing things not recommended by the American Medical Association

 (I suppose there will soon be very few city newspapers --- which is good news for crooks of all kinds but particularly for political crooks, whom Jim was expert at identifying, inAlbany and elsewhere.)

 To some extent, Jim remained a Boston Irishman his whole life, in his unusual mix of tough, skeptical observer and romantic, about his beloved Red Sox and some other things. And I’d guess that his rigorous education at the famous Boston Latin School helped make him the disciplined writer and editor he became.

Jim was also an old-fashioned newspaperman in that he worked for a bunch of papers before he settled down at the Times Union. “Itinerant newspaperman’’ used to be a common creature.

We had mutual friends, but I didn’t get to know him until he started writing occasional columns for The Providence Journal, where I was editorial page editor for a couple of decades.

As I started following his career, I found he could do it all – write with elegance  and controlled passion, edit and rewrite with great precision, lay out pages and do a bunch of other stuff needed to put out newspapers every day. But then, he spent his entire working career in the business, enjoying  its last 20 years of prosperity before the Internet and ever more myopic newspaper chain ownership started to destroy it.

His columns for me (and everyone) ranged over a very wide range of subjects – he could  comment on almost  any topic with clarity, concision and lasting persuasiveness – aided by his immense reading and astounding recall. But politics and government (and the need for constant vigilance thereof), the environment, sports and history were major areas. While he could joke around with the sort of cynicism often associated with veteran journalists who had seen too much bad behavior, his drive for finding the truth,  explaining it to citizens and laying out to them the best ways to respond to it never wavered. Think of how much healthier our civic life would be if we had many more people like Jim McGrath.

Jim could be voluble and shout an argument but he was a softie – an affectionate man devoted, of course to Darryl, his wife, and his wider family but also to an extraordinarily wide range of friends of all walks of life. I do like to think, however,  that he had a particular affection for other journalists, and especially those like us who had had ringside seats to so many good and bad times over the decades.