My Two Cents: Letting go

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When I joined the team that relaunched the Portland Phoenix, it was with the expectation we would publish an independent weekly newspaper that readers in greater Portland would find informative, entertaining, and useful.

And with the assumption that after a year, or maybe two, I would retire.

That was three years ago.

My expectations about the Phoenix have not only been met but they’ve also been exceeded. My assumption about retirement proved somewhat less accurate. 

Week after week since November 2019 the Phoenix has provided a polished and unique alternative to the area’s other weeklies and dailies. After only two years our combination of experienced editors, talented writers, and insightful contributors – along with a veteran advertising staff that knows and understands the Portland market – earned the Maine Press Association’s award for General Excellence. We set a high bar for ourselves, and despite the continuing impact of the coronavirus pandemic, we topped it and continue to raise it.

Six months in, the pandemic turned everything upside down. Not only was I working differently – at home, compared with decades of commuting to and from an office – but retirement was looking less inviting, too, with limited things to do and fewer places to go. The obvious choice was to keep working, remotely.

But as the “new” Phoenix approaches its third birthday, and as our society gains more of a handle on how to cope with and respect the coronavirus, I’ve decided it’s time to finally embrace retirement – whatever that means. And honestly, I don’t have a clue about what it will mean. I just know this is the time to step aside and explore what’s next for me.

I never could have lasted 45 years in journalism without colleagues who inspired me every day. There are too many to list all of them, but I couldn’t go without acknowledging a few:

• The late Art Spinella, who hired me out of college in 1977 at Automotive Age, a trade magazine where I learned the nuts and bolts of covering business by writing about the retail side of the nation’s biggest industry at a pivotal time in its history.

• The late Carter Barber, a classic “newspaper guy” and former Pulitzer Prize nominee who also wrote pulp fiction under a pen name; he gave me my first daily newspaper job in 1980 when he was the business editor of the Daily News of Los Angeles. I covered businesses small and large, from taco stands to beleaguered savings and loan associations. I even scored a one-on-one interview with Roger Smith, then the chairman of General Motors. (Smith assured me the company had no plans to close its Van Nuys, California, assembly plant just weeks before they shut the place down.)

• A trio from the defunct Journal Tribune in Biddeford: the late Bob Melville, the impulsive and big-hearted managing editor who in 1985 created a business writer job for me; Sandy Marsters, then the city editor and eventually Melville’s successor as managing editor, whose instincts, insight, and friendship I continue to cherish; and the late Bob Saunders, who wrote eloquent editorials when I joined the paper and later – as managing editor when I was the city editor – personified calm in the face of adversity and became a one-man firewall for the newsroom staff when out-of-state owners began dismantling the great little paper we had built.

• Adam Dawson, a former Daily News of L.A. reporter and fellow Syracuse University alum, who I even convinced to spend a few months in Maine as city editor of the Journal Tribune. He became an elite private investigator in Los Angeles and remains a mentor, confidant, and close friend. Adam would tell young reporters they may eventually move on to bigger places and better-paying, more high-profile jobs than they had in Biddeford, but they would never be as close to their readers, or have as much autonomy, freedom – and fun – as they would have at a small paper like the Journal Tribune. He was absolutely right; I’ve shared his insight and wisdom about life at the bottom of the journalism food chain with every reporter I’ve ever hired.

• Marian McCue and Karen Wood, my editor, and publisher, respectively, at the Phoenix and before that The Forecaster. We’ve been together for many of the last 18 years. They’ve put up with my occasional disrespect for authority; my unwillingness to compromise when I know I’m right and to admit when I’m wrong; my unabashed rooting for the New York Yankees and Syracuse Orange. And most importantly, they are steadfast believers that quality journalism and free weekly newspapers are not mutually exclusive. We are family.

• And speaking of family, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the boundless energy, support, encouragement, and love of my wife, Barbara Riegelhaupt, a reporter-turned-lawyer who happens to be the best writer and editor I’ve ever known (not to mention the world’s greatest grandma). We moved to Maine in 1984 for what we thought would be a one-year stop on our career paths. It’s been our home ever since.  

Finally, I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to teach, coach, and mentor an amazing assortment of young journalists. Several are familiar to readers and listeners in Maine; others have moved on to larger markets around the country. Inspiring them, and helping them grow and succeed, has been a highlight of my career.       

I’ll be happy and grateful if retirement is half as rewarding.

Mo Mehlsak’s last day as managing editor of the Phoenix was Tuesday, Sept. 20.

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