Death of a newspaper man, loss of a friend

Written by Carl Kurek. Posted in Featured

Published on January 04, 2012 with No Comments

The Chronicle published this story earlier this year, before Larry Bretts took up his position here as managing editor. A short time ago, Bretts was diagnosed with cancer and he died this past Saturday.The Chronicle feels the least we can do to honor Bretts is re-publish the story that provided a short insight into his life.

Bretts loved life, as anyone who knew him could attest to. Everyone at The Chronicle is very grateful for the short time we were able to enjoy the company of this great individual. We are also glad to have been able to provide him an opportunity to continue doing what he loved. His presence will truly be missed. 

 

Amid changing industry, one man recalls love for journalism

After nearly 50 years in the journalism field, Larry Bretts still wants in

 

Some may say that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.

But Portage resident Larry Bretts would say otherwise, and he has proven this old saying to be untrue numerous times throughout his nearly half a century in the newspaper industry.

For those just getting their foot into the door of the journalism field – speaking from personal experience – the things you hear about the struggling print industry from professors and peers can make you a little uneasy.

But Bretts’ story of being passionate about your work and adapting to the inevitable changes that can be expected in a technological world such as ours, can help alleviate those worries – at least somewhat.

Bretts was born Feb. 4, 1944 in Troy, N.Y. His father was a doctor, which led to his family relocating to Lawrence, Mass., where Bretts would continue to live, developing a love for Italian food, until he would move to Northwest Indiana some 25 years later.

Bretts always loved photography saying that, at least back then, it was just one of those things where you were doing something with your hands.

“You’d go into a dark room, flush some pictures around in some chemicals, and then an image would begin to appear,” Bretts recollected. “That’s something young photographers and journalists today won’t experience.”

Bretts attended Boston University and later transferred to Suffolk University, a private university in the heart of Boston, which Bretts said worked better for him because it was more of a commuter college.

While working for his university newspaper in the 1960s, Bretts got the chance to cover some major events in the nation’s history. He recalled traveling some 90 miles from the Boston University campus to go “stake out” the Kennedy Compound the night John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He also covered Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Boston in 1965.

Throughout Bretts’ career he also got the opportunity to cover the visits of two popes to the Chicagoland area, and even got the chance to cover the former first lady Rosalynn Carter’s trip to Gary.

Bretts laughed as he recalled what could be attributed to a “rookie mistake.”

“I remember asking a secret service guy ‘Is there a better place I can get to so I can shoot her?’ and I immediately realized I probably should’ve re-worded that question,” Bretts said as he held back laughter.

The college graduate got his real start in the newspaper industry as chief photographer of the Eagle Tribune in 1968. The newspaper operated out of North Andover, Mass. and served an area stretching from the Boston area to Southern New Hampshire, which included Bretts’ hometown of Lawrence, Mass.

One year later, in April of 1969, Bretts packed up and moved to Northwest Indiana to become the first person to hold the title of reporter and photographer for the Post-Tribune.

“I was one of the first people to be using a 35mm camera,” Bretts said.

He said that back then, photographers’ area of coverage was limited by county, but as a reporter you could go anywhere. So with a quick switch-a-roo of Brett’s title so that it read “Photographer/Reporter” he was able to bypass the limitations that regular photographers were inclined to obey.

When his contract ended, a more experienced Bretts applied for the Post-Tribune’s position of editor/publisher. And he got it.

Around 1974, Bretts was transferred to the main office in Gary, primarily as a photographer, where he stayed until 1981.

Bretts started in the industry when type was set with hot lead. In a time before microwaves existed, he recalled that if you were on good terms with the guys who operated the vats of hot lead, they would make sure your lunch stayed warm.

As the times were a-changin’, Bretts was forced to either adapt to the technological advances, or find a new career path.

Without hesitation, he adapted.

“I loved it,” Bretts said. “The technology explosion has been wonderful.”

After years of being a reporter, an aging Bretts realized he was moving slower than he used to, he was tired of getting rained on and tired of freezing when it was cold out, and he was editing copy and writing headlines anyway, so he eventually made the transition indoors to a desk job.

It was at that desk that Bretts would stay until Oct. 14, 2010 when the journalism rug was pulled out from under his feet.

Bretts came into work like any other day, sat down at his desk and began working on page one when he was called into a meeting and told that his job had been “impacted,” and it ceased to exist anymore.

“Within the last couple of years, technology has really laid waste to the work force,” Bretts said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future there isn’t even a physical copy desk at all.”

Instead, Bretts envisions there being one centralized copy desk, and that, he said, could be some guy sitting on a laptop in his living room.

This is completely opposite of the reporting Bretts is used to.

He feels very fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to work with esteemed colleagues like Gary Galloway, whose favorite question, according to Bretts, was “Why?”

“Saying, ‘I’m not telling you,’ was like waving a red flag in front of a bull,” Bretts said while describing Galloway.

Frank Wiget is another individual Bretts worked with over the years, and he said Wiget was an ideal reporter.

“If you told him there was a story on the other side of a brick wall, he’d run right through it,” Bretts said.

Bretts also worked with the likes of Terence O’Rourke who he described as having an encyclopedic mind, and Carrol Vertrees, a true old-school “news person.”

“He was the guy who knew people,” Bretts said. “He didn’t have to look through a Rolodex or anything, and he could give you the person and their number.”

The work ethic of these traditional news industry employees is something that Bretts said, you just do not see anymore, as many reporters nowadays, he said, get away with reporting a story without ever leaving their desk. He admits there are a few good reporters still out there today, but they are too few and far between.

One of these reporters, according to Bretts, is Post-Tribune Columnist, Jerry Davich. Bretts worked with Davich since he first joined the Post-Tribune a few years ago, and described him as thorough, compassionate and accurate.

“Larry is the poster child for what has happened to the newspaper business in the 21st century,” Davich said. He’s a great guy, very knowledgeable about the business. It’s a shame he probably won’t be working in it again.”

The two became friends while working together, and when Bretts suffered a stroke a few years back, Davich was one of the few colleagues of his to pay him a visit in the hospital.

It is reporters like Davich who Bretts said keep the flavor in their writing, and it is others who lack it.

 “Even today, there is something about meeting a deadline,” Bretts said. “You’re getting paid to beat the clock and there’s a tremendous rush from that.”

Bretts has journalism in his blood and does not plan to sit back and retire. He said working in the newspaper industry has to be something you love to do, as any career path should be.

“You’re not working for the publication, you’re working for the reader. You have a sacred trust you have to uphold to serve the public,” he said. “I got up every morning, and loved going to work.”

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