Between The Lines: Back Where I Came From

When I came to the Valley Advocate in the late spring of 1995, I had the overwhelming sense that I was coming home.

And it was a homecoming of sorts. I’d spent important years of my youth in the Pioneer Valley, had gone to nursery school and kindergarten in the old Vernon Street School in Northampton, first grade at the Hooker School in Hadley, then across the street to the Russell Street School through the middle of fourth grade.

All those schools were closed or on their way out by the time I signed on to be the managing editor of the Advocate, but not everything had changed in my 25-year absence. As I drove around in those first few weeks, I was frequently startled by the intensity of memories that came flooding back, often triggered by the simplest of things — the smell of fresh-tilled soil in the fields along the Connecticut River or the way the sun hit the Summit House at certain times of day.

As the weeks and months went by, I found myself in a near-constant state of dejavu. Everywhere I went, I bumped into places, and even sometimes people, I had known but forgotten. Along Route 2, driving from Greenfield through Shelburne Falls into Charlemont, I’d see places I remembered stopping with my grandmother in the 1960s. Poking around on the campus of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, I’d come across a building where my dad had an office when he was doing his doctoral studies. Grinding my way through Westfield, I’d spot a restaurant where my mom would buy my sister and me ice cream while she had coffee and a cigarette.

Earlier that year, living in Boston, where I covered city politics for a weekly newspaper and Betsy worked for a museum design firm, it never occurred to me that a few months later we’d be living and working in the Valley. Although I had fond memories of the place and had continued to spend time in various parts of Western, Mass., running road races in Holyoke and Springfield and hunting and fishing in the Berkshires, I’d become a Boston guy. Or so I thought.

We were curled up on the couch in our little apartment in the North End, watching the O.J. Simpson trial on Court TV, when the phone rang. It was Dan Caccavaro, my editor at the Boston TAB, announcing his decision to accept an offer to go to work for the Valley Advocate in Hatfield.

Caccavaro wanted to know what I thought of his decision to leave the TAB Newspapers, an independently-owned chain of 14 weeklies that had recently sold to a media business assembled by Fidelity Investments, for an alternative newspaper in the “happy Valley.” It was the first time I’d ever heard that expression.

Looking back now, I can see Caccavaro knew exactly what I’d say, but never one to cut to the chase, I forced him to listen to my rigorous analysis. A lot of words added up to about this: in the end, writers work for themselves no matter who signs the check, so go have some fun and don’t worry about it.

By the time we hung up, I knew Caccavaro would be the next editor of the Valley Advocate and that I would soon join him in his new venture.

I think Caccavaro and I found the kind of home at the Valley Advocate that we’d almost had at the TAB — a place where writers can delve deeply into subjects in ways that most daily newspapers of record can’t or won’t. With only one publication to do a week and and by focusing most, but not all, of our resources locally, we were free to come at writing and reporting differently than most professional journalists do. Supported by a passionately engaged community comprising our owners, our colleagues and, most of all, our readers, we weren’t afraid to take risks, to pick fights, to indulge our artistic or literary inclinations, to push our points of view.

We weren’t afraid. And we had fun.

As I jot down these final words in what will be my last column as editor of the Valley Advocate, I’m happy to say I’m still having fun.

Over the course of nearly 20 years, over the course of a thousand or so stories that I’ve written and tens of thousands that I’ve worked on as an editor, I’ve taken such great pleasure in my work that time seems to have flown by too quickly. Never bored, never so frustrated that I couldn’t enjoy the process of being a writer and editor in this particular spot in the world, I’ve loved almost all of it and have already forgotten the rest. Yet, I’ve come to that point in my life where I’m beginning to feel stingy about the time I have left, impatient to get to adventures long postponed.

With great fondness for my colleagues past and present and a promise from the new editors that my work will continue to find a home in these pages, I will return to my first career as a writer — working for myself.•

Author: Tom Vannah

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