Wally Lage, an executive of Missouri-based Rust Communications and a longtime newspaper publisher, died after falling off a pier in Harpswell, authorities said.

Lage, 66, of Cape Girardeau, Mo., drowned Thursday, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department said. He was helping to unload a boat after an outing with friends when he got trapped under a float.

A witness jumped in the water but couldn’t find Lage, who was pronounced dead at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick.

Lage was vice president and chief operating officer of Rust Communications.

The veteran newspaperman was inducted into the Missouri Press Association Hall of Fame in 2008.

“Our hearts are aching right now,” said Jon K. Rust, co-president of Rust Communications and publisher of the company’s flagship newspaper, the Southeast Missourian. “Wally was not only a tremendous newspaperman but a great friend — and a rock for his family. May they feel the love of all who have known, admired and respected a remarkable man.”

Lage oversaw an era of rapid growth for Rust Communications, including the acquisition or startup of about 50 newspapers in eight states, including 13 daily newspapers.

He served in the Army in the late 1960s and graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Missouri.

He began his career in 1969 with Winsor Newspapers in Canton, Ill.

By the time he was 25, he was publisher of the Boonville (Mo.) Daily News and of free publications in Jefferson City and Columbia.

Lage later became president of newspaper operations in the Paxton Media Group, and was general manager of the Paducah Sun in Kentucky before joining Rust Communications in 1993.

During his Hall of Fame induction two years ago, Lage was noted as a fierce advocate for local news.

He served with numerous newspaper organizations.

He was also active in the Cape Girardeau community, including serving on the board of directors for Saint Francis Medical Center.

He is survived by his wife, Dori, four children and seven grandchildren.