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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 5, 2007

The Enterprise named fourth in state press competition, winning nine awards

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

We’re proud to be recognized for writing the best obituaries in the state; our community deserves no less.

The first-place prize for obituaries — in a competition that included weeklies of all sizes — was among the nine awards The Altamont Enterprise took home this week from the annual New York State Press Association contest.

The Enterprise also took first place, in the third of four divisions based on circulation, for coverage of education, and for best columns — an award that recognized the writing of columnist Diane Cameron.

The 122-year-old independent paper also won both second- and third-place awards for in-depth reporting, second- and third-place awards for humor columns, a second-place award for best cartoon, and a second-place award for best feature story.

The awards were presented during a two-day conference in Saratoga Springs. Two-hundred-and-twenty-seven newspapers submitted a total of 4,084 entries, which were judged by members of the Oklahoma Press Association and the New Jersey Press Association.

The awards garnered by The Enterprise put us third for editorial content among single-flag newspapers statewide and fourth overall among single-flag newspapers.

The Enterprise ranked sixth statewide for editorial content among all the newspapers that entered — including both single-flag and chain newspapers.

The first-place award for obituaries exemplifies our purpose.

Jim Gardner, the long-time owner of The Enterprise, does not charge for obits. Most newspapers these days treat obituaries as paid advertisements.

Gardner likes to kid that he took a vow of poverty when he became publisher of The Enterprise. It’s certainly true that Jim Gardner and his wife, Wanda, the office manager, aren’t getting rich from working long hours at The Enterprise; running a community newspaper is a calling.

But there are rewards that add up to more than dollars and cents; one of them is recording the rich history of a community.

I traveled to Bermuda several years ago and searched for my roots. I was thrilled, after hours of reading through microfilm of old newspapers, to find an 1819 obituary of my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s son: "Died — At Government House on Wednesday last, Marischal Keith Smith, Esq., aged 21 years, youngest son of the Honorable William Smith, Esq., Commander-in-Chief."

The obituary included just one phrase on the young man’s life — he studied Divinity and Physic in Scotland — and the rest of the lengthy piece described his father’s grief and lamented his death.

"It were almost needless for us to enter into a panegyric on the many virtues and accomplishments of the deceased, since obituary notices of this nature are of no use to the dead — they are beneficial only as admonitions to the living," the obituary said.

When I read that, I felt like shouting at the long-gone writer, "Such a record would be useful to future generations — like me. Journalism, it has been said, is the first take of history. How can we know our history if you haven’t written it""

Each week at The Enterprise, we set out to document not just the bones but the flesh of our lives.

Our staff writers, all of them, have written obituaries:

— Jo E. Prout, our most senior writer, a Notre Dame anthropology major who covers Guilderland planning and writes features and columns, all while raising two children;

— Timothy Matteson, our veteran sportswriter, a Castleton State communications major who covers high school athletes in three school districts as if they were pros;

And the fresh young writers who have joined us in the past year or two:

— Jarrett Carroll, a Sage College business and humanities major who covers Guilderland Town Hall and police;

— Saranac Hale Spencer, a Cornell philosophy major, currently covering the villages of Altamont and Voorheesville,

— Rachel Dutil, a University of Alaska at Fairbanks journalism major, covering New Scotland and the Voorheesville schools; and

— Tyler Schuling, a University of Iowa English major covering the Helderberg Hilltowns.

Our reporters talk to the families and friends of those who have died to create a full portrait of their lives. We write of lives that matter. Although some of the people whose lives we document have names that have never appeared in print before, the threads of their lives form the fabric of our community.

The obituaries are typeset with care and precision by Debra Pratt ; proofread by the eagle eye of Barbara DeGaetano, Wanda Gardner’s assistant; and formatted, with pictures included, by graphic designer Carla Luft. Graphic artist Diane Groff has been known to stay late to typeset an after-deadline obit so that news of the funeral could be in print before the service.

The paper is layed out, often until the wee hours of Thursday morning, by Publisher Gardner and Editor Melissa Hale-Spencer with Matteson writing headlines.

The papers are labeled and bundled for mailing by Luft, Pratt, Rick Schlierer, and Jim Gardner Jr.

Susan Spaccarelli, who created the Enterprise website, posts the obituaries on-line. We’ve heard grateful comments from people in town and around the country who are able to access the information in a timely and convenient way. We received an e-mail from as far away as Istanbul from a website reader who was once a foreign-exchange student at Guilderland High School and had read on-line at our website the obituary of a classmate’s father.

The advertising that makes all this possible is sold by our ad manager, Cherie Lussier.

So it is a concerted effort that allows us to document the lives that have created our community.

Two newspaper editions were entered in the obituary competition — Aug. 31 and Dec. 14 of 2006. The August edition featured two front-page obituaries. The first, written by Saranac Hale Spencer, told of the long life of Charlotte Wilcoxen, "a historian — persistent in the pursuit of knowledge but tempered by southern manners — and mother of seven." She died at 101.

The second, by Melissa Hale Spencer, told of an exuberant life cut tragically short at the age of 19. "A dull gray sky spit rain on Fredendall Funeral Home Friday morning. Inside, somber rows of mourners hugged each other and wept," it began. "The most vibrant thing in the packed room was the rakish smile on the boy in the framed picture in front. He was Alexander Edgar Tolmie. He had died on Aug. 21 of injuries he received after the motorcycle he was riding crashed."

Inside, Jarrett Carroll wrote about George Walter Sherer "a decorated Vietnam veteran and cubmaster who loved outdoor activities," and Hale-Spencer wrote of Kenneth J. Rapsard, "a man who made deep and long-lasting commitments — to his work, to his family, and to his community."

The Dec. 14 edition featured an obituary by Tyler Schuling on Sheila Powers "an ardent champion of personal and property rights" who possessed "incredible judgment about human behavior." An obituary by Hale-Spencer on Orloff Bear Sr. — who "was born into a farming family and passed his love of animals and farming on to his children and grandchildren" — included quotations from Bear himself and a picture of him taken by Nicole Fay Barr, a neighbor of Bear and an Enterprise reporter who left the paper to raise her son, John Thomas Barr.

The edition led with an editorial by Melissa Hale-Spencer that asked the question: "Why do we feel such a sense of loss when old farmers die""

It featured recollections of farmers Morrris Willsey, Orloff Bear, and Harry Garry, and of the farmers’ advocate, Sheila Powers.

The contest judge, in awarding first prize, wrote, "I loved your editorial, ‘Honoring our Founding Farmers.’ The content and layout are perfect — very readable and very personal. I love the pictures you used and the way you break the obits with a quote — outstanding work."

Varied views

Our opinion pages have won many prizes over the years. They give our community a chance to have a dialogue with itself.

This year, we were thrilled to welcome Diane Cameron as a columnist. She moved to Guilderland with her husband, Peter, to become executive director of the Community Caregivers and began writing a monthly column for us. "The Common Writer" is wise without being pedantic and sharp without being cutting.

Cameron won first place for Best Column with a submission of three entries — "Grocery carts and community," "Death ends a life but not a relationship," and "Educating citizens."

The judges wrote, "Exceptionally well done. Expertly melds the personal view into the issue almost without the reader realizing what she’s doing. It is personal, but her points are subtle, yet much deeper."

In her column on grocery carts, for example, Cameron writes of how she noticed many people will not spend the time or effort to return their carts.

"Community," she writes, "is created in simple daily acts: Saying good morning, tossing the neighbors’ paper closer to their door, picking up litter — yeah, someone else’s — and returning the grocery cart, are tiny ways of taking responsibility. That one gesture contains it all: connection, responsibility, participation."

Cameron, who used to write for a local daily newspaper, decided to write for The Enterprise, because, she said, "You’re the real deal. You are telling the truth. You don’t just cover the community. You make the community."

This year, we were also fortunate to add the talents of a gifted artist, Forest Byrd of Knox, to our pages. He is a graduate of the University of California at Long Beach.

Byrd, who also does exquisite and creative woodwork, can communicate without words. He took second place for his cartoon depicting blindfolded board members feeling a police manual; two board members stated they hadn’t read the new manual but the board went ahead and adopted it anyway.

"Good pointed piece on contentious local issue — good work," wrote the judges.

Byrd, who used to work for a west-coast publication, said this week, "I really appreciate all your dedication to your paper. The time you put in shows a thoughtfulness and caring that seems lacking in the glitzier publications. It is an honor to be able to work with you all."

Two of our opinion-page writers, both winners before, won awards again this year for Best Humor Column.

Michael Seinberg, who had won first place, won second place this year. The entry included three of his "What’s your thought"" columns.

Seinberg is a versatile and facile writer, who started out in journalism after majoring in communication at SUNY Brockport and is now a computer consultant. He says he finds humor writing to be the most challenging and he’s always up for a challenge. An accomplished photographer, he often supplies pictures to illustrate his columns.

Seinberg, who supplied a vintage picture of himself as a high-school student, gave piquant yet sincere advice to seniors in our keepsake commencement issue. In his column, "Zen and the art of garage sale-ing," — illustrated with his photograph of a roadside easy chair, posted with the sign, "Free, beer not included" — Seinberg shared advice gleaned from years of quirky shopping.

And, his column, "What’s wrong with humans"", was written in the voice of his nine-pound Chihuahua, Minnie, and illustrated with her wide-eyed, big-eared picture.

"You humans are really stinking up the planet something fierce," says Minnie. "Those big, loud ugly vehicles you ride around in are a huge problem...About the only good thing about them is sticking your head out the window as they move along, and you humans aren’t even smart enough to do that...."

"The nine-pound guest column is very good humor," wrote the judges. "I like your style of writing and really enjoyed having a picture. The layout is perfect. Excellent work!"

This year, Frank Palmeri won third place for the second time for his humor columns.

"I always enjoy looking at the more offbeat and lighter topics," said Palmeri, who works for the state and lives in Guilderland. "And every time someone stops me in a supermarket aisle or while pumping gas and says, ‘Hey, I loved your column!’ it’s like the world has become a smaller and friendlier place. It’s nice to know that local newspapers like The Enterprise can still foster this shared experience in their communities."

Palmeri’s winning columns this year offered insight on a variety of topics. In "Advice to a daughter who is leaving home," he provided a long list of admonitions ranging from the practical — "Dust occasionally" — to the sentimental — "A smile opens doors like nothing else."

In "Scheming for screaming," Palmeri begins, "I think it’s time for a good scream. Not just any scream, mind you, like when your team loses in the bottom of the ninth, or when you cut yourself shaving, but a real, from-the-gut, primal, blow-out-the lungs, make-your-head-hurt, all-out wail."

Finally, in his column, "Dear Cranky Frankie," Palmeri offers his own tongue-in-cheek advice to letter-writers like Lonely Lucy and Dim Dave.

"Dear Cranky Frankie," wrote the judges, "It was difficult to choose between this column and the advice you gave your daughter when she left home — but I found I have the same sentiments that you do about advice columns. You are actually better than Dear Abby or Ann Landers!"

Feature winner

Matt Cook won second place in Feature Story for "Going Out to see the Beatles’ Best: Liverpool lads play with venom and passion, just like in the sixties."

The feature competition always attracts the most entries; 355 stories were entered this year.

Cook, a Hope College English major with a master’s degree from Simmons, covered the Hilltowns for The Enterprise for two years and also wrote many finely-crafted pieces on the arts, ranging from profiles of musicians to theater reviews.

He is now working as the editor of the Norwood Bulletin in Massachusetts.

His prize-winning feature was based on an interview with Pete Best, the Beatles’ drummer before the group skyrocketed to fame. Cook’s profile previewed an appearance by Best at a local Elks’ lodge.

"Four decades after being kicked out of the group that became the most successful rock band in history," Cook’s story begins, "life is good, says Pete Best.

"‘I’ve raised a family. I’ve had a marriage that’s stayed for 40-odd years...I’m still happy, healthy, got a great sense of humor. I can go out and get drunk when I want to,’ said Best...."

Cook’s story, said the contest judges, "takes the reader down a well-traveled road but it tells Best’s story well and in his own words. Lots of information is presented but delivered in such a way that the reader is hungry for more. Well done."

Two prizes for in-depth news

The Enterprise is known for examining issues in depth, and this past year was no exception. A stunning series on sex offenders by Saranac Hale Spencer won second place among 161 entries.

The judges wrote, "Tough, unpopular topic handled brilliantly. Excellent!"

When New York State adopted its version of Megan’s Law in 1996, The Enterprise adopted a policy to report on the crimes and whereabouts of sex offenders living in our community. Last year, one of these short accounts, which we run on our "Blotters and Dockets" page along with the arrests and court proceedings, turned into a front-page story.

Melissa Hale-Spencer felt compelled to try to reach a sex offender who had moved into town so that she could tell his side of the story; She interviewed him in the locked psych ward of a city hospital.

It wasn’t a pretty story. He made no excuses for his awful crime. When he was 17, he had raped a 12-year-old girl. He served 14 years in prison. Being shunned after getting out, he was suicidal and in the hospital.

The centerpiece of the series was a front-page look by Saranac Hale Spencer at the ramifications of a recent decision by New York State’s highest court. The Court of Appeals ruled that the practice of committing some convicted sex offenders to mental-health facilities after they served their prison terms was inappropriate.

Saranac Hale Spencer wrote about the bills currently pending in the state legislature, interviewing the politicians sponsoring the bills as well as mental-health and crime experts, police, and victims advocates to give a well-rounded view of the problem’s many facets.

She concluded with a story about a convicted sex offender, telling about his crime, his time in prison, and his life since being released from prison two years ago.

The series also included editorials by Melissa Hale-Spencer, examining what has worked in other states and making recommendations for New York.

The Enterprise won a third-place award for in-depth reporting for a series developed by Holly Grosch and concluded by Rachel Dutil.

Grosch, a St. Lawrence University history major, who now works as the assistant registrar for The College of Saint Rose, was a diligent New Scotland reporter for two years, covering issues with great depth and care.

At the start of 2006, the state comptroller made an announcement at a packed press conference that he had uncovered corruption in the Voorheesville School District. While the other media treated his claim as fact, Grosch dug deeper — right from the start.

She detailed the charges but went beyond the press conference and press release regurgitated by the other media. She talked to the accused, she read the audit, she got a copy of the district’s lawsuit filed the same day as the conference, and she detailed the community reaction.

She continued to press for copies of contracts, filing numerous Freedom of Information Law requests and finally, with the help of the executive director of the New York Committee on Open Government, was able to get copies of the contracts the district had with the accused administrators. The contracts were a mess — poorly written, with several different copies of what should have been single contracts. It became clear from Grosch’s coverage that, while the school board president had blamed the administrators, expressing his outrage, the school board was to blame, too.

School board elections saw the president ousted, a story only Grosch covered.

In July, The Enterprise broke the story, written by Melissa Hale-Spencer, that Albany County’s district attorney had found no basis to prosecute the school administrators.

In November, the story took a new turn when the state comptroller issued another report, accusing the former school superintendent of paying himself inappropriately. While the other local media again provided just superficial coverage, Rachel Dutil not only thoroughly detailed the auditor’s findings but made an important distinction based on the school board’s response. The board was standing behind two of its administrators, and Dutil interviewed both of them at length about the charges.

Dutil is continuing her adept coverage this week as the school district has announced it has settled with McCartney.

The truth was not in the press releases that the other media used.

The judges had this to say about the series: "Excellent job, digging up the documentation. Now THAT’S in-depth reporting."

First place for coverage of education

The Enterprise continued its decades-old tradition of award-winning coverage in education, winning first place again this year. The first-place entry was based on two editions of the paper — Jan. 26 and Aug. 24.

"This newspaper knows how to cover a beat and a community," wrote the judges. "Thorough reporting, good mix of news and special features, impressed by consistent efforts to go beyond meeting coverage and find other sources. Great coverage; great job."

The Jan. 26 edition featured two front-page stories by Grosch: "Trust shattered at Voorheesville: Old leaders accused," the first story on the state comptroller’s claims to have uncovered corruption in the Voorheesville School District, and "Basketball coach fouls out," a story about the arrest of a coach and teacher’s aide for raping a 14-year-old girl. Grosch’s story detailed the unfolding State Police investigation and captured the division in a small town where the families of both the accused and accuser were well known.

Grosch wrote both breaking stories the same day, under deadline.

The January issue also included stories by Melissa Hale-Spencer on the Guilderland School Board’s skepticism over the governor’s budget proposal and on the pros and cons of full-day kindergarten. She also had an in-depth feature on a Farnsworth Middle School team that built a prize-winning model for a Future City competition.

Rounding out the edition was yet another story by Grosch — on a Czech exchange student.

The front page of the Aug. 24 edition was dominated by a picture Matteson took of kids with handicaps enthusiastically playing football. It ran with a touching story in which Matteson described a program allowing kids with disabilities to learn a sport they love.

Dutil topped the front page with a story analyzing the expense the Voorheesville School District had incurred pursing civil suits against its former superintendent and assistant superintendent.

Melissa Hale-Spencer had a front-page story on school tax rates being lower than predicted for Guilderland residents.

The Aug. 24 edition also included an eight-page Back-to-School section that included nine essays by Farnsworth Middle School students on topics including over-eating, divorce, acid rain, and world hunger.

Columnist Ellen Zunon wrote with her usual acumen about schools on the Ivory Coast of Africa.

But the heart of the special section was Holly Grosch’s series, telling "The Lindsay Myers Story." The front page of the section, headlined, "One girl’s life as a mainstreamed student," featured a drawing by Forest Byrd, showing Lindsay enjoying cake with her classmates.

A courageous girl with Downs syndrome, Lindsay was backed by her parents who believed she belonged in a school in her own community of Voorheesville. In the end, Lindsay was able to attend Voorheesville’s high school and taught the entire community about the value of diversity.

In Grosch’s very first week working as a newspaper reporter, in June of 2004, The Enterprise received a letter to the editor from Lindsay’s grandmother, complaining that the Voorheesville schools were excluding Lindsay.

Grosch responded to the letter with a thorough and even-handed look at what was offered to Lindsay. We ran an editorial to go along with it.

Two years later, Grosch had not forgotten Lindsay. She described how, after Lindsay spent a year in a program outside of her home district, she had returned to Voorheesville. Grosch was eager to see if Lindsay was truly accepted in a school where she took regular classes with an aide at her side.

Grosch arranged to spend a day at school with Lindsay and, in her final stories for our newspaper, wrote a series of articles that formed the centerpiece of our back-to-school issue.

The series included an editorial by Melissa Hale-Spencer and a cartoon by Byrd, showing Lindsay as she headed into school, with her family behind her, waving from the wings.

The editorial, "Lindsay Myers has taught us the value of diversity," concluded, "Lindsay, with the backing of her family, has opened a door for all of us. Let us walk through it with our heads high and our hands joined."

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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