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Jim Kenyon: Tribute to a Newspaperman

Published: 7/10/2016 12:28:14 AM
Modified: 7/10/2016 12:28:28 AM

In the summer of 1997, Alex Leary, a recent college grad, was “selling beer, sandwiches and gas” at a convenience store in his hometown of Ithaca, N.Y. A journalism major at Ithaca College, Leary wasn’t having much luck breaking into the newspaper business. He had landed just one interview — for a reporting position at the Keene Sentinel — and that hadn’t panned out.

So just when Leary was starting to think he might not have a future in journalism, he got a call from Valley News Editor Jim Fox. The editor in Keene had passed along his name, Fox said.

Fox invited Leary to West Lebanon for an interview. A couple of days after he returned to his job at the convenience store, Leary heard from Fox again.

“Jim Fox rescued me from rejection,” Leary said.

Today, at age 41, Leary is the Washington bureau chief for the Tampa Bay Times, the largest paper in Florida and among the 20 largest nationally.

Looking back, Leary still can’t quite believe that Fox would take a chance on a kid from upstate New York who had never worked at a newspaper, not even as an intern, and was toiling away in a minimum-wage job.

But in Fox’s way of thinking, the time Leary spent behind the convenience store’s counter was time well spent. It brought him face-to-face with all kinds of people. For a young reporter knocking on strangers’ doors and chatting up public officials in search of the facts, the experience could prove invaluable.

“Early on, I got onto a hot story involving Hanover or Dartmouth — I can’t remember which — and Jim summoned me into his corner office,” Leary recalled. “We went through my draft of the story line by line, revising and amplifying. He did not make me feel small; he inspired.”

On July 1, after nearly 30 years at the Valley News, Fox turned out the light in his office and walked out the paper’s back door with his canvas satchel in hand for the last time. (He’ll continue to write a couple of editorials a week from home.)

“I have never known a journalist with a higher ratio of talent to ego,” said Mark Davis, a reporter at the newspaper for nine years before moving to the Burlington-based weekly Seven Days in 2013.

Davis and Leary were among the former Valley News staff writers whom I emailed in the hope they would send me a paragraph or two about what having Fox for a boss meant to them. Minutes later, my in-box started filling up.

Eric Lipton was the first to write back. He started at the Valley News in 1987, just before Fox came aboard. He’s now a Washington-based correspondent for The New York Times. In 2015, Lipton won a Pulitzer Prize — his second — for investigative journalism.

“The newspaper business is defined by deadlines and the stress associated with meeting them. But Jim was always a steady hand, making sure our stories were clear, accurate and well told,” Lipton wrote.

Andrea Sand, a Valley News features writer for six years, also arrived shortly ahead of Fox.

“I think the highest compliment I could pay Jim is to say that he reminded me of my late mother,” Sand told me. “It was unspoken, but you understood he expected you to perform at your highest capacity. And so you did.”

Sand, who lives in Woodstock, is working on her second novel, which is set in Vermont during World War II.

Sarah Stewart Taylor is another Valley News alum-turned-novelist.

It wasn’t until she left the paper that she could see clearly what made Fox stand out. Unlike editors she’d later work with as a freelance writer, Fox didn’t give her an assignment having already determined what the story should be about.

“He let reporters actually report, let them go through the process of discovery that leads to the best stories,” said Taylor, who lives in Hartland.

To put it another way, Fox was a reporter’s editor — the baseball equivalent of being a player’s manager.

“Jim taught by example,” said Peter Jamison, who is now a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, covering the Los Angeles mayor’s office.

“The editorials he wrote over the years were a master class in clear argument and elegant (and often very funny) writing. ... I’ll never forget his diagnosis of a classic small-town dispute over a spate of dog attacks in Royalton. The problem, he observed, was the ‘inability of the central characters to speak.’ ... That kind of arch humor says something else about Jim: He doesn’t hold with dumbing down or otherwise diluting the quality of journalism under any circumstances.”

Jodie Tillman, a staff writer for the Orange County Register’s lifestyle magazine in southern California, remembers Fox for more than his editing skills. Tillman, who grew up in Georgia and went to college in South Carolina, had spent a particularly frigid winter day in the Upper Valley on an outdoor assignment for the Valley News.

Upon returning to the office, she was “dizzy, blurry-eyed and convinced I was dying from the extreme cold. Jim offered to drive me to see a doctor. Turns out I was just a slightly dehydrated and homesick Southerner. When I emerged from an exam room, feeling a bit silly, Jim just nodded and said, ‘Want to get a sandwich?’ ”

For nearly all of the 15 years that I’ve been this paper’s news columnist, Fox has been my editor. He reeled me in when I became too verbose, nudged me when I needed to write with more authority, and fixed my grammar too many times to count.

He brought out my best work, as he did for others.

That’s the description of a great editor.

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