Heralding a Change: After 43 Years on Deadline, Longtime Randolph Publisher Turns the Page

Valley News Columnist
Sunday, August 16, 2015
Randolph — Dick Drysdale did a lot of some things and a little bit of everything during his 43 years as publisher of The Herald of Randolph, which I suppose comes with the territory when you own a small weekly newspaper.

He wrote editorials and laid out the front page (until the digital age arrived), but he also delivered the paper on occasion and sometimes made the office coffee — which was only fitting since he drinks five or six cups a day.

Drysdale, who turns 71 in November, also had the unenviable task of collecting the newspaper’s delinquent bills. Advertisers who had fallen behind would get a call from a nearly apologetic Drysdale every few months. “I probably shouldn’t have waited so long, but I knew some people were having a hard time,” he told me.

A pizza parlor comes to mind.

Recognizing the owner might be short on cash, Drysdale suggested he settle up by dropping off a few hot pizzas at the Herald’s office on Pleasant Street once a week. For two years, the Herald’s 10 or so staff members enjoyed pizza Wednesdays — the paper’s deadline day.

The pizza payments didn’t help the paper’s bottom line, but the staffer who told me the story — it’s not something Drysdale would have brought up on his own — said it was typical of his boss to offer a solution that benefited the pizzeria and Herald employees as well.

When I mentioned to Drysdale that the pizza deal had cost him advertising revenue, he just shrugged. “I ate my share,” he said.

Trying to collect overdue bills, and delivering the paper when the regular carrier couldn’t make it, are among the few things that Drysdale won’t miss.

In June, he and his wife, Marjorie, sold the paper, which had been in his family for nearly 70 years. Tim Calabro, a photographer at the paper, and his wife, Katie Vincent-Roller, bought it for an undisclosed price.

Calabro, 32, started taking pictures for the paper 15 years ago when he was a student at South Royalton High School. Bob Eddy, a longtime Herald photographer, allotted him one roll of film with 36 frames. “Use them wisely,” advised Eddy.

Shortly after graduating from the University of Vermont in 2006, Calabro joined the Herald full-time. Drysdale is comfortable handing him the reins of the paper, which has had only four publishers (Calabro makes five) since it was founded in 1874.

“He knows the area so well, and he understands what we do,” said Drysdale. The Drysdales’ two sons. who both live out of state, weren’t interested in getting into the newspaper business.

At a time when the newspaper industry as a whole appears to be in danger of going the way of landline telephones, the American Society of News Editors reported last month that small community newspapers are faring better than most.

During Drysdale’s tenure, the Herald’s weekly circulation grew from 4,000 to 6,000. More than 50 convenience stores and other outlets offer the Herald for $1. (“And Worth Every Penny,” according to the front page banner’s small print.)

Although circulation has dipped to about 5,500 in recent years, the Herald remains the “paper of record” for the 16 communities that it covers in the White River Valley.

When I asked how the paper was doing, Drysdale replied, “We’re doing all right.”

Every Thursday, the Herald comes out with two dozen or more pages of local news, sports, entertainment and photography. The paper shut down its presses in 1994, and is now printed at the Valley News in West Lebanon.

A front page in early August featured stories about the future of Tunbridge’s ambulance service, a Brookfield, Vt., resident campaigning on behalf of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and upcoming events at Chandler Music Hall in Randolph. “Deer on Road Results in Car in Cemetery” was a headline on Page 2, next to “Local Births.”

Its small-town flavor aside, the Herald vigorously performs its role of government watchdog. I think back a few years ago to when the Randolph Selectboard quietly arranged for then-Town Manager Gary Champy to receive a contract extension even though he was having trouble getting along with several town boards and organizations, including the library.

The Herald got a hold of the story, and didn’t let go. It eventually led to Champy’s resignation in 2012. “We’ve gotten rid of a couple of town managers, actually,” Drysdale said matter-of-factly. Over the years, the Herald has also proven up to the task of covering the big stories — the floods, fires and murders — that rock towns.

In 2011, its coverage of Tropical Storm Irene’s devastating effect on “the valley” earned the Herald staff a first-place award in the Vermont Press Association’s annual contest.

After three fires destroyed a large swath of downtown Randolph in the early 1990s, a Herald editorial dubbed the rebuilding effort, “Randolph on the Rise,” and the slogan was printed on T-shirts.

“We try to create a community amongst the 16 towns, so people know things about each other, how our government works and how our economy works,” said Drysdale.

Along with writing editorials, Drysdale assigned himself the job of editing the news releases that stream in from local businesses and nonprofit organizations. “I’m pretty good at cutting out all the crap,” he said.

Spoken like a true newspaperman.

Earlier this year, Drysdale was inducted into the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s Hall of Fame. “The Herald is known as one of the best weeklies in New England and beyond, and it is the go-to source for all news, information and advertising in Orange County, which does not have a daily newspaper,” the organization wrote in announcing Drysdale’s induction.

I expected to find the plaque commemorating the honor hanging in Drysdale’s office in the back of newsroom, but it was nowhere in sight. “It’s about the size of a piece of furniture,” he said.

Considering his pedigree, the honor doesn’t come as a surprise. Drysdale’s grandfather on his mother’s side was editor of the Springfield Union in Massachusetts. His grandmother also worked at the paper.

His father, John Drysdale, bought the Herald in the 1940s. After Dick (short for Dickey, his mother’s maiden name) graduated from then Braintree-Randolph High School in 1962, he headed off to Harvard with thoughts of becoming a journalist.

“Basically, I’m kind of a shy person,” he said. “Being a reporter gave me a reason to talk to people.”

Drysdale worked at the Lewiston Tribune in Idaho and his grandfather’s paper, the Springfield Union, before returning to Vermont.

In 1971, at age 26, he bought the Herald from his father. Eddy, the photographer who started at the Herald in 1987 marvels at Drysdale’s career path. “How many kids growing up in Randolph, Vt., end up at Harvard? How many take over the family’s paper in Vermont, and stay?”

Drysdale didn’t give much thought to moving up the career ladder. “I wouldn’t be the boss at a big paper,” he said.

Being the boss has its advantages. In 1994, Drysdale announced that after long being known as the White River Valley Herald, he was changing the name to The Herald of Randolph.

“There was a bunch of us who disagreed with the change,” said Eddy.

“It was a long, cumbersome name that was confusing,” explained Drysdale. “People who didn’t know us assumed we were based in White River Junction.”

The paper has made its home in the same two-story building just off Randolph’s main street since it was built in 1899. Dick and Marjorie, who worked as regional editor for several years, live just a couple of miles away.

Drysdale’s interest in music — he’s probably one of the few journalists who can put on his resume that he’s reviewed organ recitals — has led to expanded coverage of Chandler Musical Hall and the arts in general.

“In rural central Vermont, arts have flourished in part because of Herald publicity,” Rebecca Meekin, former executive director of Chandler Music Hall, said in a profile of Drysdale that accompanied a story about the ownership change. “I think organizations were given confidence, knowing that the Herald would cover what they’re doing.”

After reading about the sale of the paper in the June 11 edition, Ron and Butch Greenwood sent Drysdale a special bottle of maple syrup.

On the bottle was an engraving that read, “It’s been a pleasure.”

The Greenwood brothers had advertised their farm equipment business on Route 14 in the Herald until they sold it last year. “It’s one of the few papers left today that people sit down and read the whole thing from front to back,” said Butch Greenwood, who continues to work in sales for the new owner, Champlain Valley Equipment.

“It’s the paper you read if you want to know what’s going on. There’s always something that when a customer comes in, there will be something to talk about.

“We didn’t always agree with (Drysdale’s) politics, but he was always fair.”

Eddy described Drysdale as a “George Aiken Republican who is perfectly comfortable being criticized by the left and the right.”

State Rep. Patsy French, a Democrat who has represented Randolph since 2003, agreed with Eddy’s assessment. French, who grew up in South Royalton, has known Drysdale for years and can’t remember a time when Drysdale endorsed a candidate — of any party — in a House race. French said he essentially tells readers, “These are local folks, you know them. You don’t need my advice.”

With unruly hair and a scruffy beard, Drysdale comes across as something of an absent-minded professor. His office, which Calabro has no intention of commandeering, is littered with small piles of old newspapers. His roll-top desk faces a wall to which he has taped some of his favorite Beetle Bailey and Dilbert comic strips. He pads around the newsroom in sandals.

A few years ago, he arrived at the office with a homemade marshmallow gun. “What he lacked in accuracy, he made up for in enthusiasm,” wrote Katie Jickling in her profile of Drysdale in June. “Stray marshmallows turned up in corners of the office for weeks following.”

Just as Calabro had done, the 22-year-old Jickling, a recent graduate of Hamilton College in upstate New York, started at the Herald while still in high school. “He makes this a place where people want to be,” she said.

“He’s not a micromanager,” said Calabro. “He gets people he trusts and let’s them do their thing.”

Drysdale is glad to hear what others on the staff have to say about him, but he insists that he gets more out of the relationship than they do.

“You need to have younger people around to liven up the office and bring in new ideas,” he said.

I think a large part of Drysdale’s success — and the newspaper’s as a whole — can be attributed to one thing: He’s never stopped being a reporter. It’s allowed him to stay in touch with the communities that the Herald covers.

Case in point:

On a Sunday afternoon in October 2013, Drysdale was “squashing apples” to make cider with a friend. He knew that his friend was a neighbor of Anthony Doria, the founder of Vermont Law School who frequently made news, not all of it positive, over the years.

Drysdale had heard that Doria, well into his 80s, was in declining health. He asked his friend how Doria was doing. The friend reported that he hadn’t seen much activity around Doria’s hilltop house in South Royalton.

“There are even rumors that Doria might be dead,” said the friend.

The next day, Drysdale dashed off an email to Doria’s son, Shawn, who had moved to the Boston area and had written for the Herald while a student at South Royalton High School.

The confirmation that Drysdale was looking for — and needed to write the story — came back shortly thereafter. Doria had died on May 23, 2013 — nearly five months earlier — at a nursing home in Hanover, but his family hadn’t published an obituary.

Drysdale started working the phones. Vermont Law School administrators and faculty were unaware of Doria’s death. A few days later, in the Oct. 17, 2013, edition, Drysdale broke the news.

“The biggest scoop we’ve probably ever had,” said Drysdale.

The front-page story also showed Drysdale’s institutional memory.

“During his most active years during the late ’60s and ’70s Doria was a colorful and very public figure,” wrote Drysdale. “Relying on sheer charm, and ebullient energy, he bought and renovated many of South Royalton’s most important buildings. … At his home at the intersections of Routes 14 and 110, guests found elegantly prepared meals, fine Italian wines and Picassos. At the same time, however, Doria left behind him a trail of liens, attachments, lawsuits and unpaid bills, including one for $6,516 for 325 cases of imported Italian wine.”

Last week, I emailed Drysdale. I had to know: Had Doria left the H erald with any unpaid bills?

There was one for about $300 for a printing job, replied Drysdale. But he stopped trying to collect long ago. Besides, he doesn’t have to deal with that part of the business any longer.

He’s keeping his office at the Herald and working 20 hours a week, doing some reporting and writing editorials.

“He’s still cranking out the good stuff,” said Managing Editor Sandy Vondrasek Cooch.

Drysdale doesn’t expect to cover selectboard or school board meetings, however. “I can’t hear well enough,” he said.

In his spare time, he’ll continue to hike and play tennis two or three times a week. He’s also putting together a collection of Herald stories over the last 40 years for a book that he’s planning to call Vermont Moments.

There were a lot of them.

Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon can be reached at