First a disclaimer: back in the early 1980s when I was editor of the Gazette, I hired Judson Brown. I liked him and his values, but he was more than difficult to work with. End of disclaimer.
In the intervening years, Judson came to recognized by the community as not only a careful reporter and gifted stylist, but as a man with strong passions and enthusiasms.
He came to the Gazette as editor for the Easthampton news section, yet made his mark as a reporter, ranging over such beats as arts and living, farming, the environment, schools, and business. And in the course of his varied chores, he came in contact with people from all nooks of the community. "I got to meet a lot of people."
So I sat down with Judson not long ago to talk about his life - past and future - on the occasion of his leaving the Gazette, without much ceremony, after nearly 20 years.
"Its been a long fade-out," he said of his decision to leave daily journalism. "Ive just been there too goddamn long. It was time to go."
During our hour-long conversation, two people who came into the book store separately, saw Judson and came over to visit, and were surprised to learn from him of his decision to leave the paper.
"The Gazette was a good place to work; Im grateful to the Gazette," he said, recognizing he could be maddening to manage. "I never had an easy time with my editor, I was always difficult for editors," he admitted. "I just sort of wanted to write what I wanted to write."
Warming to his discussion of life at the local newspaper, Brown said: "I like the term local pencil, that just fits, being a local pencil. I was not a bear for uncovering and exposing wrong-doing The stories I like best had no bad guys and good guys; I love ambiguity."
Browns approach to reporting and journalism derives as much from his background in social services and community activism as it does to so-called journalistic objectivity and distance.
Northampton is too small to permit detachment. "You have a stake in the community, its almost a we feeling" and as a reporter on a small daily "youre not just a cog in a wheel." Getting to know Northampton yields rewards. "Its a little more than a small town and its a little less than a city," he said. "Its worth knowing."
It appears that one of the great tensions in Browns professional life has been his struggle to reconcile his being either on the barricades in social service or on the sidelines as a reporter.
Prior to his long run at the Gazette, he was pulled back and forth by each of those urges over a long period of time, which no doubt caused a good deal of psychic ambivalence.
Born in 1947, Judson Brown has roots that go back to a world of genteel privilege associated with growing up with two brothers and a sister on the campus of one of the nations elite private boarding schools, Phillips Academy Andover, where his father was an English teacher and, several decades earlier, a graduate of the school himself. At age 86, his father continues to teach as a tutor in Maine. A boarding school involves a kind of community, but almost a "foreign country" totally isolated from the real world, Brown acknowledges.
He went to the University of Pennsylvania. Journalism first grabbed his interest when he worked summers during college for the Boston Globe. "It was an incredible opportunity, it was fabulous," he recalls.
Finishing up at Penn, he got a job at the now defunct Philadelphia Bulletin, again covering city issues. "It was a time of urban awakening."
By 1969 he had married Sandra Russell and was "getting pretty nice assignments" at the Bulletin, but at this point social service tugged at him and he quit his newspaper job and signed onto to an inner-city self help group call the Young Great Society, helping write a documentary film and produced a "huge tome" based on a daily journal he kept of his experiences, which mysteriously disappeared some point.
In retrospect, he says it might have been mistake to leave the Bulletin , but "newspapers were outside looking in. I wanted to be where the action was."
Eventually grant money for the activists dried up, and Brown was on to the next phase, the "whole Bohemian lifestyle" - writing for an underground newspaper, dabbling in poetry, counseling runaways, "wandering around town, befriending ghetto kids, all just sort of a boiling pot" of activity, while the family was largely supported by Sandy Brown.
Looming in the background was the Vietnam War, and receiving a low draft number, Brown struggled with what he should do, finally declaring himself a conscientious objector, a stance that was not accepted by authorities. Sent to Ft. Jackson, SC. for basic training, he reported late and ultimately was put in jail for five weeks. "I thought I was going to be there forever," he recalls, "but they let me out because of my pain-in-the-ass brother" who was a lawyer.
In an effort to get back on track, he returned to newspapering, this time at the Bennington Banner where he worked for the next three years, and the family, which now included a son and daughter, moved into a farm house they bought. The newspaper experience was fine. "They were just the best bunch of people," but "things fell apart again," and Brown was lured back to the world of trying to be helpful.
He became involved in running something called the Norfolk Fellowship Foundation which brought visitors to Norfolk Prison in Massachusetts "out-mates to meet with inmates." Yet the family lived in upper middle class Milton. Again the grant money ran out after about three years and Brown wound up as a caseworker for the state Department of Social Services.
But he was finding this work less and less appealing, "having other people be your work, giving shape to other peoples lives." Increasingly, he was concluding that it is "mainly best to shape your own work, rather than other people."
At that point, the newspaper option resurfaced, he says, adding a personal "Bless your heart" to me for luring him to Northampton where "everything has been very steady for close to 20 years."
Recalling his arrival in this area, Brown says: "I was completely enchanted with Easthampton. I thought it was the cats meow ... a compact little city with a pond right in the middle of it. The whole thing of community is a powerful one for me. It was a perfect match."
He and his family lived on Center Street, and he walked to work there or commuted by bus to the papers main office in Northampton. He still sees people on the street who he recalls riding the bus with years earlier. "Public transportation is a great way to meet the community."
His days as an editor were "a horrible time," but his professional life improved when he became a full-time reporter without management responsibilities. He and his family eventually moved to Laurel Park in Northampton. Meanwhile, his wife taught for many years at the Campus School and now is a second grade teacher at Marks Meadow in Amherst. Daughter Thalia graduated from Penn and their son, Ellery, is a student at Bates College.
What now for Judson Brown, who has reined in his persistent restlessness for almost two decades? "Im now ready to try something else." It might be teaching or tutoring and he has already completed some free-lance writing assignments.
He is interested in oral history, an extension of his long-time feeling about community and aspects of local history. "One woman told me shes lost her town," referring to Northampton. "She felt her community had been taken away from her."
Hes attracted to knowing more about Holyoke. "I still have that urban romance."
And so lifes ebb and flow, push and pull continue to chafe and yank at Judson Brown, who wants to be inside and outside, both in sequence and at the same time. Complicated? Sure. Thats Judson Brown.