Monday, July 21, 2008

Alive at 65

After an astonishingly long run, I’m retiring from the life of a daily newspaper reporter. This was my day job so I could write poetry. But it got all mixed up: News became the main theme of my poetry; poetry snuck into my journalism. To borrow from a highway safety campaign that I generally ignored, given some recent health bumps and the frenetic pace of the Internet-challenged news business, I’m slowing down to the speed limit.

The company announcement succinctly tells the story:

Record reporter Jan Barry is “retiring into his next career”– teaching and writing – at the end of the month. Last semester he moonlighted as an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University and three years ago he was NJMG’s Journalist-in-Residence at Rutgers University. Jan has had a long affiliation with The Record: his first job out of the Army, returning from Vietnam in the mid-’60s, was that of library clerk. He returned to us briefly as a correspondent in the early ’80s, but it wasn’t until 1987 that he joined us as a full-time reporter in the Passaic/Morris Bureau. He won several awards for The Record, including a Community Service award from the Society of Silurians for exposing how government inefficiency and political maneuvering polluted the state’s water quality. He was also a point reporter and key contributor on The Record’s acclaimed “Toxic Legacy” investigative series. “It’s been a memorable career and provided the underpinning for my other endeavors in teaching and writing books and poetry,” Jan said. He is the author of Earth Songs: New & Selected Poems and A Citizen’s Guide to Grass-Roots Campaigns.

My first gig as a news reporter was in the summer of 1976, when I applied for a job as a municipal correspondent at the Morristown (NJ) Daily Record. I was just completing my second poetry anthology (Demilitarized Zones: Veterans after Vietnam) and needed a better income than poetry readings provided. I’d also decided I needed to learn the discipline of newspaper writing. I discovered that I enjoyed the hectic, eclectic nature of newspaper reporting. Over the course of 30 years—with some time out for other pursuits—I wrote thousands of news articles. Here’s one of my favorites:

Positively relentless in saving Highlands
Women's Clubs used old-style diplomacy

By Jan Barry, Staff Writer

When it comes to saving North Jersey's environment, a group of women has proven that some crusading techniques are timeless.

As legislators strode into the State House last week for a session that included a vote on the Highlands preservation bill, the halls were lined by environmental lobbyists - familiar faces from the Sierra Club and the activist Highlands Coalition. But among the most persistent at spurring passage of the Highlands legislation, by all accounts, were members of the New Jersey State Federation of Women's Clubs.

As it happens, just the night before, the organization was honored for its role more than a century ago in helping save the Hudson River Palisades from quarry blasters.

"If it were not for the New Jersey Federation of Women's Clubs, we would not be here," Carol Ash, executive director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, said at a tribute dinner Wednesday at the Ross Dock park house at the base of the Palisades in Fort Lee.

Ash also lauded the group for waging a similar effort to save the core watershed lands of the Highlands from development.

That effort, two of its leaders said, involved mobilizing the group's 305 clubs and 14,000 members in New Jersey to politely but persistently contact state officials by letter, e-mail, telephone, fax, and in face-to-face talks.

"One hundred years ago, [women's club leaders] Cecilia Gaines and Elizabeth Vermilye kind of invented the wheel when it came to demonstrating women's organized strength. We just replicated that," said Ann Quinn, the immediate past state president of the federation.

"It appeared to work all over again," she said after witnessing Thursday's vote for the Highlands bill by a sweeping majority of legislators.

The Highlands bill, which Governor McGreevey will sign shortly, will sharply restrict development on critical lands near reservoirs and feeder streams that provide water to millions of state residents. The mountainous area, which has been under severe development pressures, stretches from northern Bergen County down to Hunterdon County's farmlands.

"We all stood up and cheered," Quinn said of the crowd in the galleries of the Senate and Assembly, as the Highlands bill passed by wide margins. "So many groups worked on this for so long, it was like 'Wow, it really happened!'-"

David Epstein, a member of McGreevey's Highlands Task Force, called the women's clubs the "bedrock" of the Highlands effort.

"They are so unassuming, so courteous, and yet they are so tenacious and passionate about protecting the environment," said Epstein, executive director of the Morris Land Conservancy.

"They did so much of the legwork to get this done. They were at every single hearing; they were lobbying in the halls," he said. "Their approach is always so friendly and courteous, you can't help but be taken by the positive attitude they bring to this."

Curtis Fisher, a policy adviser to Governor McGreevey, described the group's lobbying approach. "I was at an event with my boss. The federation grabbed him and said 'the Highlands, the Highlands, the Highlands!' They kept calling me, attending hearings all across New Jersey - the federation was there, raising the flag for protecting the Highlands."

Quinn, who spent Thursday buttonholing legislators after testifying month after month at hearings, credited the federation's legislative chairman, Patty Whitehouse, with organizing the lobbying effort.

"She was the one who coordinated everything. She did a vast amount of work," Quinn said. Whitehouse, a Peapack-Gladstone resident of the Highlands who recently became a vice president of the state federation, said she copied the 1897-1900 letter-writing campaign used to spur New Jersey and New York officials to save the Palisades.

"And we used some new techniques," Whitehouse confided. "E-mail and telephones!"

(The Record, Bergen Co., NJ 6/13/04)

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