Going, Going, Gone: Longtime ‘Valley News’ Sports Editor Is Outta Here

Sunday, January 04, 2015
West Lebanon

O n a fall day a few years back, Valley News sports editor Donald Mahler arrived at the Kimball Union Academy football field in Meriden. The Wildcats weren’t there yet, so Mahler walked into the nearby woods and lay down for a nap.

Soon, roused by the voices of players and coaches, he climbed to his feet and drifted out of the trees. Said one of the teenagers to a teammate: “Who’s the homeless guy?”

With his frizzy hair, untamed beard and vintage clothing, Mahler does sometimes appear as if he’s crawled from under a bridge. But in truth, his home has been at the Upper Valley’s newspaper for more than 40 years. Since being hired as the second man in a two-man sports department during the summer of 1973, and then taking over as sports editor by 1978, Mahler has chronicled the highlights and heartbreaks, the everyday happenings and the quirky occurrences of the region’s sporting scene.

For four decades, Mahler has taken his readers on a wide-ranging ride as a columnist and reporter. Were the Red Sox stumbling once again? Mahler, a New York City native and Yankees backer almost since birth, could be counted on to tweak the Olde Towne Team’s many area fans.

Was a high school squad closing in on an improbable state title? “The Donald,” as he’s known around the newsroom, could wave the flag with pride, without abandoning objectivity. He also wasn’t afraid to poke fun at himself, as he did in his account of attending an open tryout for the Cincinnati Reds during the mid-1970s.

Mahler also was your man for celebrating the uplifting or denouncing the unjust.

He helped save Dartmouth’s swimming and diving programs from the budgetary ax and played a role in preventing Lebanon officials from placing a swimming pool in historic Eldridge Park. He scolded Hanover students for wearing white trash bags to mock Lebanon’s supposed socio-economic status. But he also took aim at Lebanon High for using a Native American figure as an athletics mascot.

It all came to an end two days ago, when Mahler, 66, walked out of the newsroom for the last time as a working journalist and into retirement. It was something of a watershed moment, not just for his co-workers but also for the many coaches, parents, community members and readers he’s connected with over the years.

Hank Tenney is Hanover’s longtime recreation director and has coached several sports at local high schools. Tenney, who has generated his fair share of controversy over the years, said he was willing to talk to Mahler when he wouldn’t take other reporters’ calls because he knew the Valley News sports boss wouldn’t write an embellished or overblown story.

Tenney said he also appreciated that Mahler didn’t take sports too seriously, that he realized their core reason for being is fun.

“Don wanted kids to enjoy picking up the paper the next day,” said Tenney, who first met Mahler when they played on a 1974 recreational basketball team. “He wanted to recognize them even if they weren’t superstars and even if they didn’t score a lot of points in a game.

“He’s a true professional and legend in the Upper Valley. When he wrote, people paid attention.”

“People may have looked at him and said ‘Who’s that crazy-ass hippie?’ ” said Steve Taylor, the Valley News’ managing editor from 1965-72 and who would later become New Hampshire’s agriculture commissioner. “But when they read his stuff, they know the guy was good. It’s not often you get that combination of commitment and irreverence.”

Understanding the Game

Mahler took anything but a traditional path into journalism.

He was sitting on the couch of a buddy in Lebanon one afternoon when the phone rang. Calling was Valley News sports editor Mal Boright, who knew the friend, Howie Piansky, from Piansky’s days as a hoops star at the now defunct Canaan College. Boright’s reporter had just quit: Did Piansky want the job? Piansky already had work, so he handed the receiver to Mahler.

By way of a tryout a few days later, Boright asked Mahler to write a story based on two charted pages in a baseball scorebook. Having gone to games with his father and kept score since the age of 5, Mahler could easily interpret the hieroglyphics. He called upon high school stints as a phone jockey at the New York Herald Tribune and Journal American sports departments to invent a narrative that included quotes from an imaginary coach named Phil Fungo.

Boright hired Mahler, only to wince a few days later when the new guy waltzed into the newsroom wearing a top hat and tails.

“Picture Fred Astaire, kind of stoned,” Boright said during a telephone interview, pausing for a laugh. “Our assistant publisher came over and his eyes bugged out and he wanted to say something, but he just decided to walk the other way.”

There were a few high school coaches and administrators who felt the same way. But Mahler already knew enough of the area’s sporting folk to get by, and he won over others as he went. No, he didn’t look or act like a traditional sports writer, but he asked topical, sincere questions, listened well and understood the athletes, the coaches, their game and their passion.

Mahler’s arrival in the Upper Valley was equally improbable. He was born and raised in the Bronx, the first of Joseph and Irene Mahler’s two sons. The Mahler boys and their friends battled in fiercely competitive pickup contests of stickball, basketball and football on the pavement and dirt. Mahler said he didn’t play on a grass field until he was nearly a teenager.

Baseball figures prominently in both Mahler boys’ childhood memories because their father had access to second-level box seat tickets at the original Yankee Stadium. The family would dress up for Friday night contests to see the likes of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and Roger Maris, sometimes dining at the Cortlandt Steak House before the first pitch.

Mahler’s brother, Bob, recalls Don as a quick and talented athlete who might have starred in high school sports had he not attended mammoth, all-male DeWitt Clinton High School, where a student body of nearly 6,000 meant making any varsity team was almost impossible.

“We had the best high school backcourt in the country and I certainly wasn’t a part of it,” Don Mahler said, remembering that the Governors won a city title his senior year with a team that included future Basketball Hall of Fame guard Nate “Tiny” Archibald and Harlem Globetrotter-to-be Walter Robertson.

Mahler headed to Long Island University after high school. However, judging by the astoundingly low grade-point average he put up in his two years there, he didn’t spend much time in the classroom. Flunking out wasn’t just embarrassing, it meant losing one’s draft deferment during the Vietnam War.

A solution arrived in the mail: a letter from a place called Canaan College.

“They had illegally bought lists of kids who’d flunked out of other colleges and they enrolled about 100 of us,” Mahler said. “Then they had to have placement tests for all us nimrods, and I was sitting in one for history and there was a question about the American Revolution.

“A kid behind me raised his hand and asked ‘Which American Revolution?’ Right then, I knew the angels had sung and I was home.”

Living in a succession of old houses not far from Canaan Street Lake, Mahler earned a philosophy degree while playing guard on the Colts’ basketball team and right field for the baseball squad. He reveres his time at Canaan College, which ceased to exist less than two years after his 1972 graduation.

“It was a sanctuary and a birthplace to those of us who had never known intellectual success,” Mahler wrote in an email. “We were taught to think and respect our differences and it opened a world of curiosity and knowledge I never knew existed.”

After a short stint in Boston after graduation, Mahler returned to the Upper Valley, where he struggled to find steady work. By March, he was down to $20 and had packed his record collection and his dog, a 100-pound St. Bernard-German shepherd mix named Titan, into his Plymouth Belvedere with the intention of slinking home to the Bronx.

Then a call came from an acquaintance who was leaving a janitor’s job at Hanover High and could put in a good word for Mahler.

“I didn’t like cleaning toilets too much, but my area included the gym, and if the kids wanted to play basketball at night, I’d open it for them, on the condition that I got to play, too,” he said.

Mahler was working that job when he got the call that landed him in sports writing.

Challenges and Changes

Mahler was a young 24 when he started as a sportswriter and bonded easily with players who couldn’t ask enough questions of the hippie who attended their games.

Mahler also found friends in some of the coaching giants who occupied the sidelines, dugouts and benches during the 1970s and 1980s, including the likes of Lebanon boys basketball coach Lang Metcalf, Oxbow girls basketball boss Mona Garone and Woodsville baseball and basketball coach John Bagonzi, a wild man who only gradually took to Mahler’s charms.

“I couldn’t even begin to name all the great people I met,” said Mahler, who, along with opposing coaches, referees and sports aficionados, used to decamp for postgame drinks at Metcalf’s house. “Men and women who gave a (damn) about kids. To me, that’s the only reason to coach. I rarely ran into anyone whose ego got in the way of the job.”

Mahler’s own job was easy when writing about his coaching friends and acquaintances, but awfully hard when they ran into trouble. He recalled the difficulty of having to push Hanover football coach Mike Ivanoski for answers in the wake of a 2013 player misconduct incident that led to cancellation of the Marauders’ homecoming game.

“I would have rather put staples in my eyeballs than go ask him questions that day,” Mahler said. “He was left twisting in the wind in a situation that was going to be black, no matter how it ended up.”

A less emotional, but frustrating part of the job was trying to incorporate the public’s vast and varying interests into the sports section, an endeavor that left Mahler drained.

“My only true disappointment was that I couldn’t give them all what they wanted,” he said. “It’s a pie, and some people get bigger pieces than others. People don’t understand that if their school’s big game gets (delayed) by snow and moved to another day, now it conflicts with another school’s big game. Other people don’t care about either game. They want us to cover NASCAR and (pro) golf and Premier League soccer.

“There are just not enough people, time and pages, no matter how much you plan.”

A sea change occurred in the early 1990s, when the Valley News moved from afternoon to morning publication, which moved deadline from around noon to late at night. Mahler, whose daughter, Zoe, was born in 1994, needed to attend to planning and administrative tasks at the office during the day and was unwilling to then cover games in the afternoons and evenings, as he’d done in the past. Consequently, his connection wasn’t as strong with a new generation of coaches, players and administrators, many of whom have never met him in person.

“I had a young family and it was a selfish decision on my part,” Mahler said. “The printing time change put a lot of pressure on our department, because now we’re doing our most critical work when you should be home or sleeping. A lot of nights you ask yourself, what are you doing here, because when you work at night, the next day is almost lost.”

It was left in part to Mahler acolytes, such as Lebanon boys soccer coach Rob Johnstone, a 22-year veteran, to spread word that the local sports editor was a stand up guy. “There are certainly columnists out there who think they’re the story, but it’s not with Don,” said Johnstone, who was previously a sports writer and who still covers games for the Valley News on occasion.

“We might be in a Twitter and Facebook age, but he’s got perspective that dates back decades. The kids’ shorts are longer and their hair is shorter, but the issues are still the same.”

Windsor High School athletic director Bob Hingston dealt with Mahler for nearly 30 years. While he didn’t always agree with his friend, he said, he appreciated his fairness.

“It’s nice to be liked and loved, but what you really want is someone to understand you and appreciate what you’re trying to do,” Hingston said. “He gave high school sports a pretty good platform, and we don’t always give people like him the recognition he deserves.”

Asking Honest Questions

Mahler’s hair and sartorial style has been much the same since his first year at Canaan College. His last significant haircut came during the late 1970s, so as not to offend family members at his grandmother’s funeral. However, he soon returned to his natural state.

Why, in a job where he made dozens of first impressions a year, has Mahler declined to go mainstream in appearance? Because that flowing hair and beard, rumpled dress shirt and felt vest are as much a part of him as his impish sense of humor and his bouncing, forward-leaning walk. “I don’t have ties or suits or shiny shoes, but I’m comfortable and they can’t take that away from me,” he said. “The clothes I have, I like and I still fit into them.”

Regardless of looks, Mahler gets along with all types — from law-and-order septuagenarians to teens battling drug addiction — and gets them to open up and talk on the record for his stories.

“I think it’s because I’m not a threat,” Mahler said. “I ask honest questions about things I think the reader would want to know. I like to tell stories and you can do that if you respect people and gain their trust.

“Did I write things that didn’t flatter people? Sure, but it wasn’t to make myself feel better. Even the people I had arguments with, it didn’t last.”

A few of those arguments were with Bob Ceplikas, Dartmouth’s deputy athletic director. During the 2009-10 school year, while Ceplikas served as the department’s interim director, the Valley News wrote about Dartmouth fans and athletes’ offensive heckling of visiting Harvard during a squash match. Dartmouth’s president later apologized to his Harvard counterpart as the story went national.

“When the pack runs amok, someone must stand up to stop it or else it will overrun us all,” Mahler wrote in an award-winning column about the incident. “The moral crime that night at Dartmouth was that no one was bothered enough to make that stand.”

Ceplikas said he felt the Valley News’ initial coverage wasn’t handled correctly, and he and Mahler clashed on the subject. Ceplikas, however, said he could never stay angry at a man he so respected and who was doing his job in the best way he knew how.

“There were times he got hold of misinformation or genuinely saw things from a different point of view, but I always knew he meant well,” Ceplikas said. “He was a champion for the little guy and the voice of the average Joe sports fan, and the world needs that. Ultimately, he’s not out to get anyone.”

‘ Our Father Confessor’

Having winnowed his possessions and placed them in a small storage space, Mahler plans to spend his first months of retirement visiting friends around the country and attending the California college graduation of his daughter.

Among the surprising aspects of Mahler’s career is the fact that he has stayed on the job this long.

There have been several close calls over the past four decades. Mahler actually quit his job less than two years after he started — only to return a couple months later when his unemployment benefits were running low. He also seriously considered leaving the newspaper in the late 1980s, after his mother died, but decided he couldn’t abandon his colleague and friend Jim Fox, who had just been made managing editor.

And before that, Mahler was one of the few newsroom employees who didn’t lose their jobs after Newspapers of New England bought the Valley News and decided wholesale changes needed to be made in the news operation.

Why was Mahler kept around? For one, he was on his way to becoming a community institution. It was also evident that his gentle demeanor and growing work ethic made him an ideal co-worker and an effective, if unusual, leader. Those who worked for him knew he would not only go to bat for them with management, but also that he offered wise and compassionate counsel during difficult times.

“He’s our father confessor, our shoulder to lean on,” said night sports editor David Bailey.

“I’ve had 10 jobs during that time and the hippie guy has had one,” Mahler’s brother, Bob, said with a laugh. “Not too long ago, we had a family gathering and one of our cousins couldn’t believe Don didn’t have a plan now that he’s retiring.”

The guy who strangers mistake for a homeless man is hitting the road, not precisely sure where he’ll end up.

At a gathering of friends and co-workers, who came together at the Valley News to celebrate his career, Mahler quoted the final lines of the 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles:

“Where I am going?” he asked. “Nowhere special. I always wanted to go there.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.

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