Making Water Run Uphill
By David A. Fryxell
Gene Simon's boots scuff up a golden shower of apricot-tree leaves—"Beautiful, aren't they? The same color as apricots," he says over his shoulder—as he crosses the backyard of his Faywood-area ranch house. Cowboy-hatted and flannel-shirted, Simon moves with a speed and sureness that belie his 89 years —"looking down the gun barrel at 90," as he puts it.
Chickens of all description scatter as Simon enters the poultry yard en route to his pickup truck. His bourbon-red turkeys evacuate in a more dignified stroll. Darting in and out among them, improbably, are the lithe black shapes of wild turkeys, regular visitors from the lush Mimbres riverbanks on the other side of the fence.
"They used to just come at feeding time, but now we see 'em all day," says Simon, reaching the dusty-white pickup, which bears a blue bumper-sticker on the rear that reads, "God bless the whole world. No exceptions." Clambering in, he rockets off for a tour of his four-by-five-mile spread, which straddles the Mimbres and Highway 61 near City of Rocks State Park.
Gene Simon—rancher, newspaper columnist, crusading newspaper publisher—can be a bit like those wild turkeys. Just when you think you've got him categorized, he jumps the fence again.
For instance, he's wrapping up his 29th year as a New Mexico cattle rancher, having taken up this grueling second career in his 60s. When his granddaughter Lisa learned that Simon had by now spent as much time as a rancher as he had as a newspaperman, she observed, "PaPa, you must be pretty old."
Simon spent almost as long, 27 years, writing a weekly newspaper column, "Think About It," that ran for 22 of those years in the Deming Headlight and also ran in the Silver City Sun-News and the Carlsbad Current-Argus. He'd started the column for the Valley News Dispatch in Tarentum, Pa., shortly after selling that employee-owned paper and three other newspapers north of Pittsburgh—two weeklies and a semi-weekly—to Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper chain. From the column's inception until its final installment in February 2004, Simon never missed a deadline.
At the News Dispatch (originally the Valley Daily News) from 1947 to 1976, Simon was one of the first newsmen to go behind the Iron Curtain. He visited 49 countries and interviewed Nehru in India, Nasser in Egypt, the Shah in Iran and Castro in Cuba. He worked with federal agents sent by Bobby Kennedy to break the Mafia's hold on Westmoreland County, Pa.
Oh, and one other thing. Close your eyes and think of the 1970 National Guard shooting of protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. You instantly visualize that iconic photograph of a young woman kneeling over the body of a slain student, don't you?
That photo won Gene Simon's newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.
Stiff bristles of sacaton grass whip the sides of the pickup at sideview-mirror height as Simon aims through a narrow path in the ocean of yellow-white stalks. A gift of this spring's Mimbres River flooding, the giant native grass stretches on either side of the truck like sea foam. "We've never seen it like this before," Simon says happily, gunning the pickup towards a cottonwood-shaded corral barely glimpsed beyond the grass.
As Simon hops out to open a gate, he's verbally kicking himself for forgetting to bring along the remains of this morning's poultry dressing. "The coyotes and I have a deal," he explains. He brings the coyotes—and the occasional bobcat, like the pair he spotted at the riverbank the other day—the poultry carcasses, and they leave his cattle alone. "I think the coyotes recognize the sound of the truck," he adds, fretting that they will be disappointed today.
Simon is not exactly your stereotypical rancher, of the sort demonized by environmentalists. There's a stand of ancient ash trees over there, for instance, that he protects from his cattle with other metal gates—just as he keeps them out of the sacaton grass. He believes ranchers and environmentalists have more in common than they might think, if ever they'd stop arguing and listen to each other.
Not that he's immune to the woes that area ranchers have long been suffering. The strain from years of drought caused him to give up writing his column; he just couldn't give it his best while toting hay and watering his cattle from his domestic well, worrying with every drop that it, too, would run dry. Recently he's had to cut his herd from nearly 100 head to just 35. But he still manages the whole ranch, with the help of one hand—who this week is visiting family back in Mexico, so the chores all fall on Simon's nearly 90-year-old shoulders.
It's not exactly the life he expected as a boy growing up in Burlington, Iowa, and then, after his father died when Simon was 12, in Berea, Ohio, where his uncle taught sociology at Baldwin Wallace College. "I always wanted to be a diplomat, a college professor or a newspaperman," Simon says. Come to think of it, he did two out of three—though his professorial stint was only a brief teaching fellowship at Penn State, where he met his wife, Elisabeth ("Libby").
After a post-high school year with the Civilian Conservation Corps, Simon had worked his way through Baldwin Wallace as a stringer for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and the Berea News. He earned a master's degree at the University of Pennsylvania, then taught "Government and Politics in Modern Society" at Penn State. He married Libby in June 1942 and shipped off with the US Navy in November.
Simon spent most of the next three and a half years in the western Pacific aboard the USS Belleau Wood, a combat aircraft carrier. About halfway through that tour of duty, the ship was struck by a kamikaze plane ("I still remember, it was a beautiful Sunday morning," Simon says). Surviving that, Simon almost didn't make it through the ensuing 10-day shore leave while the ship was repaired in San Francisco: The plane he was originally supposed to catch home to Pennsylvania crashed en route.
"I don't know whether that was the wheel of fate or not," he says. "I still get gooseflesh every time I think about that."
Safely home after the war, Simon was on track to fulfill one of his other career ambitions—diplomat. He had a full scholarship to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, affiliated with Harvard. He even had his living-quarters assignment. But then his father-in-law, Charles Howe, made him an offer.
Howe had founded the Valley Daily News in Tarentum in 1904. He'd lost his only son in childhood, and so now wanted to bring his son-in-law, Gene Simon, into the business.
"I had an ingrained antipathy to being in the company as the boss's son or boss' son-in-law," Simon says. "The kind of guy I am, it just wouldn't work."
So he made his father-in-law a deal: Simon would accept the job offer on the condition that he first spend at least a year working at another newspaper, learning the ropes. He went to work at the Patriot and Evening News in Harrisburg, Pa., training successively in the editorial, circulation and advertising departments. "On my days off, I'd pick the brain of the mechanical supervisor. It was the best investment of time I ever made."
Part of the bargain, though, was that no one except the Harrisburg paper's general manager—"a hardnosed Pennsylvania Dutchman named Charlie Morrison," Simon recalls—would know any details of the unusual arrangement. Simon's salary was set at $25 a week. When his department heads tried to give him a raise, Morrison spiked the requests, saying, "A deal's a deal." But when Simon said his goodbyes after 14 months at the Patriot and Evening News, Morrison handed him an envelope containing a check for $2,000. "That was a helluva windfall in the 1940s," Simon adds as he tells this story, one of his favorites.
In 1947, then, Simon joined his father-in-law's paper as circulation manager and assistant to the publisher. Two years later, Howe unexpectedly died—but not before seeing a dream come true: The Tarentum daily had a circulation of just 9,000 when Simon joined the paper. He recalls, "Charlie Howe had formed it on a shoestring in a two-bit town. He always said he'd like to see it hit 15,000 circulation by its 50th anniversary, in 1954. But by golly, we had 15,000 before he died." Even after more than half a century, Simon still chokes up a bit at this.
With Howe's death, Gene Simon was elected president and general manager of the employee-owned publishing and printing company. "If I hadn't had the opportunity to show my stuff," he says, "it wouldn't have happened."
In the 1950s, Simon's newspaper position led to him becoming a director of the US Society of Editors and Commentators, which sponsored journalistic study missions around the globe. On one such tour, he interviewed Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi: "Nehru was one of the most impressive interviews I ever had. He came in to greet us, all by himself—no guards with guns like some of these guys—with a rose in his lapel." Simon was also impressed by Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser—"Boy, did I like that guy. We went up the Nile to his summer residence," he recalls.
On a later tour, in 1959, Simon was part of a group of 10 US newspapermen who met Fidel Castro—just two weeks after the revolutionary leader had seized power in Cuba. At one point in their meeting, he still remembers, Castro interrupted the interview to help a peasant settle an argument over a cow. "Castro was not then the man he is now—of course, neither am I!" Simon says with a chuckle. "But at that time I would challenge anyone to talk to him and not come away liking the guy."
After meeting the Shah of Iran, Simon recalls, "I wrote that this guy is not long for this world."
But it was a 1953 tour of Europe with a group of 32 journalists and newspaper executives that Simon most enjoys reminiscing about. Dubbing their mission "Operation Pipedream," the tour group had visited every Soviet embassy on their itinerary, trying to get permission to visit the USSR. After Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's death, their reception suddenly warmed.
"We had our bags packed to go home to New York, when suddenly there was a message from the Soviet embassy. Ten of us could go," Simon recalls. This presented a dilemma, because in an earlier show of hands all 32 newspaper people had said they'd venture behind the Iron Curtain if given the chance. When that "pipedream" became a reality, however, "suddenly people started remembering that their mother back home had a weak heart, so they shouldn't go." The original 32 shrank to eight, including Simon. The group dragooned a publisher they knew was also traveling in Europe—chipping in when she was $125 short of the fare—but still couldn't muster the full 10 the Soviets had agreed to admit.
"The Rover Boys in Moscow" was how Time magazine headlined its story of the history-making peek behind the Iron Curtain. It still irks Simon, though, that the magazine described the newspaper visitors to the USSR as "a hand-picked group." His long face furrows with irritation: "'Hand-picked'? We ourselves didn't know who was going until the last minute. The Soviet embassy didn't know until we got our passports in Helsinki!"
Simon later wrote about the trip for the Associated Press and the New York Herald-Tribune, and Life magazine bought three of his photographs from inside the USSR. (The US ambassador to England, Simon still recalls with happy scorn, had thought he was crazy for even asking if he could bring a camera.) He also wrote a scathing letter to Time, setting the record straight, but the magazine edited the heck out of it.
His world travels inspired Simon to offer the same sort of opportunities to his newspaper's readers. Starting in 1956, the Valley Daily News began offering its subscribers "study tours"—first to Europe, later to South America—the first newspaper in the country to do so. When Alaska and Hawaii became states, he took groups of readers there, too. "I always wanted to be first," he says.
A side benefit of the tours was that the newspaper earned one free trip for every 15 people it signed up. Rather than hoard these as executive perks, Simon doled them out as rewards for his staff. "When you offer somebody an all-expenses-paid week in Europe, you get no argument," he says. As a result, the trade journal Editor & Publisher once noted that, percentage-wise, the Valley Daily News had the most well-traveled staff of any newspaper in America—moreso than the New York Times or Washington Post.
Simon has started writing a book, which he's titled The Human Elements of Newspapering. "Why is it that a newspaper can grow in circulation while the area it serves is losing employment? With others, the community can be growing and the doggone newspaper is standing still." The answer, he says, is that human element, which he learned to nurture in his years at the Valley Daily News.
"In our business, over 50 percent of your expense is payroll," he goes on. "What's more wasteful than having a B-class ballplayer playing C-class ball?" Fond of baseball analogies, Simon played ball in school, and still has a photo showing him with a teammate who went on to the major leagues. "You might as well throw that money over a bridge."
The importance of the human element is something America's media giants—including Gannett, the company that bought his newspaper—don't seem to have figured out. People aren't just another line in a balance sheet, the same as printing presses or ink, Simon insists, adding, "And those big companies are supposed to be so smart!"
Tour of the ranch completed, he's sitting now in their cozy dining room, thoughtfully nibbling a pecan roll that Libby baked this morning. Talking about people brings him around to the darkest moment in the Valley Daily News' history—which also led to the moment of which he seems most proud, even more than winning the Pulitzer Prize. Once again, even after almost 50 years, Simon finds himself choking back emotion—"Gee," he exclaims, "this still seems so real yet."
On the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 17, 1957, a $200,000 fire destroyed the back half of the newspaper's building. The temperature in Tarentum was four below zero. "My pants were all wet and frozen," Simon remembers with a faraway look. "You could have hit them with a hammer."
He recalls a firefighter daring an ice-covered ladder to battle the blaze. A priest on the scene called for the firefighter to come down, not to risk his neck. "What the heck, father," the fireman replied. "We're fighting for our hometown paper!"
Simon takes a sip of coffee and shakes his head a bit at this memory. Does anyone feel that way about their daily newspaper any more?
Even more remarkable, by close of business that Thursday, the employees of the newspaper had voluntarily contributed $21,000 toward restoring the building. "Who would do that today?" Simon asks.
His sister, who now lives in Silver City, was then the librarian of a high school in suburban Cleveland. She cleaned out her savings to send the newspaper a check for $6,000.
"What can you do with people like that besides love 'em?" Simon says.
In 1960, the newspaper's commitment to its employees—and vice versa—paid off again when a 10-year newspaper war with the neighboring New Kensington Daily Dispatch ended in triumph for the paper in Tarentum, a town one-third the size of New Kensington. "David took over Goliath," as Simon puts it. "It was because of our people."
The combined paper was rechristened the Valley News Dispatch. The company soon went on to buy another newspaper along Pittsburgh's northern fringe, the Butler County News-Record, and launch the North Hills News-Record.
By the time the whole operation was sold to Gannett, the Valley News Dispatch—which its founder once dreamed might reach 15,000 circulation—had 44,000 readers. The combined circulation of the daily, two semi-weeklies and a weekly was 98,000.
"And Tarentum never had a population of over 10,500," Simon points out. His newspaper coined a term for the area, the "Alle-Kiske Valley" (from the Allegheny and Kiskiminetas rivers), that now defines the whole region. As Doug McCorkindale of Gannett once marveled, "You didn't have a market here, but you made one."
In the early 1960s, however, the Valley News Dispatch's market area was also home to the mob. "The Mafia ran Westmoreland County," Simon says. "You couldn't be a mayor or police chief unless the Mafia said it was OK."
A previous editor of the New Kensington paper had quit when the word went out that the Mafia had sent a hit man after him. Simon got "fed up," he says, after hearing so many people tell him things that, if they testified before a grand jury, would lead to mobsters being indicted. Everybody knew the mob ran the county, it seemed, but nobody would do anything about it.
Except Gene Simon. He wrote then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. "Within five weeks, there were 57 federal agents in Westmoreland County and New Kensington."
The feds gave Simon a special phone line that couldn't be tapped, and warned him never to park his car in the same place twice. "I got more fresh air and exercise during that time," he recalls. "I was always walking around wondering where the heck I'd put my car."
One day a flashily dressed man showed up at the newspaper office: "You're Simon? How much money would it take for you to lay off?"
But Simon didn't lay off, not even when calls started coming to his house—no voice, just heavy breathing and then a hang up. Once, a caller snarled, "You have two children who could easily get hit by a car on the way to school."
Simon grimaces at the memory. "It got tough on Libby," he says.
The Mafia even started a rival newspaper, the Tri-City Independent. On the day the first edition came out, Simon wrote an editorial "saying what they were." Then the ironically named Independent was never mentioned in his pages again—not even on the day it ultimately folded.
Two of the area's top mobsters were finally arrested in a federal raid on a gangland summit in Appalachia, NY, that made headlines all over the country—including, of course, in Simon's newspaper, to the chagrin of some local civic leaders. "The problem wasn't the bad guys, it was the good guys," Simon says. One Chamber of Commerce notable told him, "Gene, you shouldn't have put that in the paper. It gives the town a bad name."
Simon snorts at this. "He reminded me of the guy who got mad at the doctor for telling him he has cancer: 'Doc, if only you hadn't told me, I wouldn't have gotten sick.'"
He goes on, "I learned something about a fight from those experiences. If you're going to get into a fight, go the whole way—don't go half-way. We only lost one guy because he couldn't stand the pressure. It gave morale, pride and guts to the whole paper. Every daily paper needs a good fight now and then. I still get emotional thinking about it."
The Christian Science Monitor spotlighted the newspaper's mob-busting efforts in a series called "Challenge to Morality." The feds also showed their appreciation: Simon was president of the state newspaper association at the time, and he remembers a convention when he was on stage with Pennsylvania Gov. Bill Scranton, a leading Republican. ("We supported Scranton. This was when they had real Republicans, not extremist kooks.") The governor kept him there while an official from the US Justice Department could come up and present Simon with the department's Meritorious Public Service Award.
Characteristically, though, Simon says he "still cringes" thinking about this, because it looked as though he'd set up the whole thing for self-aggrandizement.
Simon is equally modest about the newspaper winning the Pulitzer Prize for Spot Photography. As he tells it, Lem Schwartz, his managing editor at the time, had a hunch. Photographer John Filo was off on another assignment, and Schwartz told him to take his camera up to Kent State.
"They were real newspapermen," says Simon, adding sadly, "These media conglomerates that worship the bottom line have lost something precious in the news business."
Filo was a real newspaperman and a good photographer, but he was also lucky. He was in the right place at the right time to snap one of the iconic images of America's agony over the Vietnam War.
"That picture showed up in India, in Japan," says Simon. "I have a file somewhere of copies people sent me from all over the world.
"It was great for the morale of the paper, too. It shows what a newspaper can do if you've got guts and some brains. Without fear or favor, that was our rule, and you win that way."
Those media conglomerates he bemoans probably wouldn't think much of Simon's budgetary philosophy, either. Once when he was lecturing at the American Press Institute, he was asked how he set the ratio between advertising and editorial space for his newspaper. "We get the best news department we can get," he replied, "and give them all the space they need. Then we get the best ad sales people we can get, and they sell all they can, and that's our percentage."
His approach to the competition was equally unorthodox. "My rule was that you never say anything negative about the competition outside the 'family'—but you stay awake nights thinking about what you can do to do a better job.
"Mean what you say, say what you mean. I always said I'm not smart enough to remember what I said to this advertiser or that one, so I just told 'em the truth."
But Simon's formula worked. At one point, the Valley News Dispatch's circulation reached such a high percentage of households in its coverage area that it was no longer efficient to list all the houses a newspaper carrier should deliver to. It was simpler just to tell the carriers the handful of houses not to deliver the paper to.
"One of the greatest things about newspapering," says Simon, reaching back for a favorite phrase, "is if you do it right, you can make water run uphill."
But even a real newspaperman can defy the laws of gravity only so long before it starts to take a toll. In 1969, Simon was diagnosed with Addison's disease—"the same as JFK," he points out—which his doctor said "happens only to highly motivated people." He was putting in 17-, 18-hour days. The company had bought some papers in the Phoenix area, which also served to introduce Simon to the Southwest. There were growing pains.
"Something had to give," Simon says simply.
When word got out that the company might be for sale, a dozen different buyers called. Simon visited seven corporate headquarters, talking to some of the biggest names in the media business.
He finally opted to sell to Gannett, in part because the company's top three executives all had a background in news. "I wouldn't put a publisher in who didn't have a news-editorial background," Simon adds.
The deal, which was struck in February 1976, was a windfall for many of the company's employee-owners. But, in a twist of fate Gene Simon now sees as one of the luckiest things ever to happen to him, Simon walked away without a penny from the deal —but owning a 67,000-acre ranch in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness.
At dinner with Gannett CEO Al Neuharth in June 1976, Simon heard himself saying, "I don't think I want to be a Gannett publisher." He hadn't planned on that, didn't know he was going to say it until the words came out of his mouth. But there it was.
As an outgrowth of its Phoenix foray, the Pennsylvania publishing and printing company had also invested in some New Mexico ranchland. "Gannett didn't want the ranch, and I didn't want to be a Gannett publisher," Simon explains. So he got the Ponderosa Ranch in exchange for his shares in the company and found himself starting a second career—in his 60s—as a rancher. (Simon soon sold the Ponderosa Ranch because of three "too muches," he says—too much size, too much debt and too much age on the owner. He bought three sections at Lone Mountain, near the Silver City-Grant County Airport, then eventually traded back up to his current spread.)
"My friends thought I ought to be on the funny farm," he says, "but it was the best move I ever made. I would have been out on my ear and unhappy as hell if I'd stayed."
Things have changed back at the paper in Pennsylvania since then, he admits ruefully. In the Valley News Dispatch's first 72 years, it had only two publishers. In the first eight or nine years after Gannett took over, the paper went through four or five. Fellas at the Chamber of Commerce would look at their watches when the latest publisher showed up, asking how long the person would be staying in town.
And remember that fire back in '57, when the employees all chipped in their own money? Veterans at the paper agree that under the new management, nobody would put in a penny.
Simon shakes his head. "Why is a big smart outfit like that not smarter?"
It gets worse. Simon's mouth narrows to a grim, pencil-like line when the name "Richard Mellon Scaife" comes up. The Pittsburgh zillionaire and right-wing crank bought the Valley News Dispatch in turn from Gannett, and has tried to make the paper both a competitor to the longstanding daily in Pittsburgh—at the expense of the News Dispatch's suburban roots—and a mouthpiece for his politics.
"It just kills me," Simon manages. "He makes the John Birchers look like Communists."
Gene Simon couldn't keep the ink out of his veins for long. "I'm one of those old guys who don't know when to quit and can't admit that he should," he allows. In May 1977, when his old paper in Pennsylvania asked him to write a column, he agreed. A few years later, in 1982, the then-editor of the Deming Headlight—another "real newspaperman"—called up and suggested that Simon start writing the column, "Think About It," for that paper.
"Cows and columns made a great combination," Simon says, "strange as it may sound. Here's why: The bulk of my column ideas came from the seat of a pickup or the back of a horse. Your mind is uncluttered. There aren't a lot of distractions."
He finally quit the column, though, when the pressures of the ranch kept him from doing right by it every week. "The quality of the columns was too much hit or miss. I couldn't do enough thinking and research.
"It was tough to give up," Simon adds. "And it's killing me that I can't get some of this stuff out of me now."
Not that he's complaining about how things have turned out. He's enjoyed this second career as a rancher every bit as much as his first. "I'm so blessed," he says. "When I think of this ranch and that newspaper, if I could, I wouldn't change the script."
He worries, of course, about the day when he can no longer work the ranch—or worse. "I tell Libby—facetiously, but there's truth in it—that when that day comes, I'll saddle up and ride off. Don't bother looking for me."
Until he rides off into the sunset, as long as he can, Gene Simon will keep making water run uphill.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.