I don’t know why Gene Thomas said yes, but I’m glad he did.
I was a naive teenager, opening the creaky wooden door to his office, tiptoeing in and nervously approaching the counter. A black and white cat lazily stretched in the front window, cooly appraising me before resuming its grooming regimen.
Through dusty stacks of old newspapers, a thin, bespectacled man emerged, wiping ink from his hands.
I introduced myself and told the newspaper publisher I wanted to write stories. I’d been reading his weekly paper since I was in second grade, from cover to cover, and I wanted more experience than my high school magazine offered.
I wanted to write for a real paper. My hometown paper.
And that’s how I got my first gig writing freelance stories for the Fruita Times, which wouldn’t have happened if Gene had turned me away.
He had every reason to do so. I had zero experience and I didn’t know what I was doing. I barely knew how to take notes and how to make sure I wrote down an exact quote. But I liked to write, and I loved talking to people, and I think he sensed I had a certain gumption underneath that awkward facade of a teenager dressed in thrift-store couture.
And so I wrote. I covered one of the first Fruita Fat Tire festivals, back when some locals dismissed the mountain biking trend as a bunch of spandex-sporting sprocketheads. I wrote about Hot Tomato Pizza opening. I wrote about Lyle Nichols’ creation of the Mike the Headless Chicken statue out of rusty axe heads and the festival celebrating the beheaded rooster’s will to live. I got a taste of what it’s like to have a front-row seat to history.
The pages of the Fruita Times provided me space to practice, and affirmed this was rewarding work that satisfied my curiosity. I didn’t care that it only paid $1.25 per column inch, I was glad to be paid at all.
I didn’t know at the time that this was Gene’s third stint owning the Fruita Times. He bought the paper first in 1957, when it was published out of a two-car garage. In the mid-1990s, he bent over light tables, cutting and pasting the layouts, intermittently petting the office cat, Charlie, as she sat on the bits and pieces of the puzzle he assembled each week. Like many small-town newspaper publishers, he wore all the hats, setting type, writing stories, taking photos, delivering the paper and selling ads.
Writing for Gene was the beginning of my newspaper career. As they say in the industry, the ink gets in your veins. I tried to leave the profession a few times but it called me back, and ultimately led to purchasing the Ouray County Plaindealer with my husband Mike less than two years ago. Though the work is hard, it’s meaningful and I love it.
But I don’t think I would have figured that out if it hadn’t been for Gene.
More than 20 years later, I realized this and tracked him down to say thank you.
I found him living in Kirk, out on the eastern plains, where he had last published an old letterpress newspaper called the South Y-W Star, the smallest paper he ever owned before retiring at age 80.
I received a handwritten reply within two weeks. His penmanship was still steady and clear.
He said he was surprised to hear from me. He had wondered how I was doing and had kept reading my stories from afar.
“I hadn’t really remembered how much help I might have been to you in earlier days so I took a lot of satisfaction in your kind words, but I think what grabbed me the most was to learn how happy you are with your journalist’s career,” he wrote.
He had retired officially since the last time I saw him, when he had started a historic old-fashioned newspaper in Georgetown. But he was still printing projects for fun, including his business card he printed on one of his letter presses. He included these titles:
“Retired Publisher of Small Newspapers”
“Democrat, Skeptic, Quasivegetarian, Teetotaler”
He mentioned he was reading his way through a list of 1,000 books and he was working on projects in his old-fashioned letterpress shop. He included a copy of a calendar for his biggest client – the local Lions Club.
In our subsequent correspondence, Gene included musings on life, particularly reflections he called “should’ves” in which he analyzed all the advice he wished he had when he was younger. He also included a history of all the newspapers he ever owned – the Johnstown Breeze, the Huerfano World, The Elbert County News, papers in Iowa and Missouri and Castle Rock.
Gene last sold the Fruita Times in 2001, and the paper closed down in 2014 after it sold again. The neighboring Grand Junction Daily Sentinel purchased it and another small weekly in Palisade to eliminate competition for publishing legal notices, and closed both papers.
When the paper closed, I thought of Gene. He had kept the paper alive three separate times during its 120-year lifespan. In some ways, he was the caretaker of the heart of the community, keeping it beating week after week. It lost its guardian, and then, it went silent.
I learned earlier this month from Gene’s family that he died on Oct. 27. He was 88 and had been sick with a lung infection for a while, and had a fall.
I had mailed him a few copies of the Plaindealer earlier this year but didn’t receive a reply. But it didn’t matter. He knew the difference he made for me, and I hope all the communities he served realize he made a difference for them. Even in his death, his family recognized the love he had for newspapers in a simple request:
“The family asks that loved ones subscribe to their local newspapers in Gene’s honor.”
Thank you, Gene.
Email co-publisher Erin McIntyre at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to the Plaindealer, click here. To make a tax-deductible donation to the Plaindealer's reporting through the Report for America project, click here.