Writing for Maine Times

Posted Monday, April 11, 2011 in Features

Writing for Maine Times

by Alice True Larkin, special to the New Maine Times

(This is the first part of a two-part memoir by Alice True Larkin about working for the Maine Times. It was originally published in the PUCKERBRUSH REVIEW in Summer/Fall 2010 and is reprinted here with that publication's generous permission. Part two will appear next week.)

BATH – One way to publicize a brand-new periodical is to take a stack of them down to the Bath Iron Works at 4 o’clock, when hard-hatted and dinner-pailed workers erupt through the gates in a mad dash for the parking lots.

“Some guy was standing at the gate, passing these out,” my husband said, tossing me a tabloid-sized newspaper.

I was busy getting his supper on the table, but later, while the kids did the dishes, I found a quiet spot and looked at the give-away paper, with its bold headline, “MAINE TIMES.”

It may have been Volume I, or Volume II; I don’t remember. What I do remember is the excitement that churned up in me as I read the articles. This, I knew, with the thrill of discovery, was where I wanted to be.

Recently, as part of my job, I’d edited the newsletter for the Northern Kennebec Community Action Council, in Waterville, and had commanded some attention by my editorials on poverty.

As an outreach worker with the NKCAC, a nonprofit anti-poverty organization, I saw plenty of the poverty that is often hidden up the back roads of Maine. Patched up shacks with dirt floors, families burning old tires for heat, and children who raced around before school collecting soda cans to cash in for food. I’d had to give up my job when we moved to be nearer my husband’s job at BIW, but my concern for the plight of the impoverished was still strong. I was committed to continue championing their cause, and here, in this newspaper, I thought I saw a way to do that.

The names John Cole and Peter Cox meant nothing to me, these two former newspapermen who had teamed up to publish a weekly newspaper that would go boldly where no other newspaper in the state dared to tread. With quixotic zeal, they tackled political corruption, threats to the environment, and yes, the injustices of poverty.

I don’t know how long it took me to write my article on poverty in Maine, but it was two weeks before I got enough courage to submit it. The offices of the Maine Times were located in a few rooms on the second floor of an old brick building in Topsham, just over the bridge from Brunswick. Bravely, I climbed the stairs and John Cole beckoned me into his office. Lean, weathered and slightly stooped, he took the manuscript I handed him and read it while I tried to shrink into invisibility in a straight wooden chair. Finally he laid it down.

“You’ve got enough here for two articles,” was his only comment on the piece. Then he beamed at me. “You’re like an angel from heaven,” he said, and swiveled back to his typewriter. Transfixed in my chair, I wondered what he was typing. When he had finished, he ripped the sheet of paper out of his typewriter and handed it to me.

One simple sentence: “This is to certify that Alice True Larkin is a qualified correspondent for the Maine Times.”

Still in a euphoric daze, I skidded home that day like an angel on roller skates.

John Cole did split the article into two sections, the first part exploring the extent of poverty in Maine, which one Community Action Program (CAP) director called “Appalachia without a press agent.” The second part discussed the role of surplus foods, a federal program for feeding the hungry, which had been adopted by some Maine towns and was vehemently opposed by others.

The reaction to the article surprised all of us. One day I got a phone call from a young man who said he represented a Quaker organization in Pennsylvania.

“We were shocked when we read it,” he said. “We didn’t think there was any poverty in Maine.” They had, it seemed, assumed that the state was largely populated by wealthy retirees rusticating in luxurious summer cottages. In response to the article, they were sending 12 members of their organization to Maine to conduct a survey, and they wanted to meet me to discuss it.

All 12 of them came to my house. They were young, sincere, and dedicated. One young man, in particular, impressed me. He was obviously not well-off nor well-educated, but he picked up a Rubik’s cube my children had been playing with, studied it intensely for about five minutes, and solved it in less time. Amazing!

Unfortunately, I never did learn how the survey turned out, but their enthusiasm gave me confidence, and I went on to submit more articles to Maine Times. John Cole always welcomed me warmly and would stop whatever he was doing to read whatever I brought in.  He was, at the very core, a kindly man.

Although I was obviously inexperienced and untrained as a news reporter, John Cole never critiqued or criticized my articles, but he did often rearrange them. He’d pick out a sentence from the third or fourth paragraph and move it to the top. I watched what he did, and learned the importance of a good lead.

The best lead I ever came up with was after a woman from Bingham called me on the phone. She was upset about what had been going on in the schools. She complained that a note had been sent to parents that a child would lose his hot lunch privileges if he misbehaved. An inconvenience, certainly, for those who would have to bring a bag lunch from home, but, she worried, what about the children who did not have that option, and depended upon a free hot lunch?

I talked to the woman at length and made a few phone calls, including one to Valere Plourde, District Superintendent of Schools, who confirmed her allegation. He didn’t seem to think it was a problem.

My article began: While the rest of the nation dedicates itself to seeing that hungry children are fed, Maine School Administration District No.13, in the Bingham area, has a new angle.

It uses hunger as punishment.

That struck a nerve! The Portland paper picked up the “hunger as punishment” phrase and it was quoted on local news broadcasts.

The next day I was at work, a rather stodgy job as a medical transcriptionist at St. Andrews Hospital in Boothbay Harbor, when I got a phone call. It was John Cole.

“Alice!” he shouted into the phone. “Get up to Bingham as fast as you can! All hell has broken loose!”

He told me that the superintendent, Mr. Plourde, was threatening to sue Maine Times, John Cole, and me, personally. This made me a little nervous, but John Cole was exultant. 

“I love it when they try to sue us,” he said. “It means we’ve hit home.”

Bingham, Maine, is a fairly small town, and the phone network spreads news faster than any present day technology. Before I shifted gears at the first stop sign, everyone in town knew I was there. 

My first stop was at the school. Superintendent Plourde was at a meeting in another building. I tracked him down and, to his apparent discomfort, questioned him in front of several of his directors. He protested that when he had talked to me on the phone, he “didn’t know" I was a reporter.

“I told you I was from Maine Times,” I reminded him.  What did he think I was – the janitor?

My next stop was at the home of a 10-year-old boy who had been put off the school bus because he had whistled. Although children were being sent home early that day because of a snowstorm, he had to walk home, a distance of four miles, in thin shoes and inadequate clothing. At the house, while I interviewed the boy, I observed obvious signs of extreme poverty, yet I had never seen a more tidy and spotless house, including – maybe especially! – mine.

In addition to his story, I learned that children who missed their bus when they were kept after school for detention had to walk home.  SAD 13 covers an area of 64 miles, there is no public transportation, and many of the mothers worked or didn’t drive.

Shortly after the story came out, it was announced over the school intercom that the penalty for detention for even a minor infraction had been increased from two days to two weeks. And a lot of kids were walking, in what looked suspiciously like reprisal.

My second article suggested just that. “They’re still walking in Bingham.” The Department of Education got wind of the uproar and sent a study group to Bingham to investigate allegations that some scoffers were calling “yellow journalism.”

The Department of Education’s survey not only corroborated everything Maine Times had reported, it found other infractions I had missed! John Cole, with great glee, instructed me to do a third article to report their findings, and ultimately, Superintendent Plourde was sacked.

He wasn’t the only one. My investigation of conditions in the Augusta CAP office resulted in the director’s dismissal, and others who had been getting away with things for years didn’t always survive the gimlet scrutiny of Maine Times.

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