Once upon a time, at another newspaper, I worked for an editor with some big ideas.

One of them was to swap the crossword puzzle we had been using, which he said was an insult to our readers’ intelligence, for the much more challenging New York Times puzzle.

Well, you never saw so much mail in your life, and none of it was thank-you notes.

“I only get the paper to be nice to the paper boy and to do the crossword puzzle,” a reader wrote. “Now I only have one reason.”

Another letter went like this:

“I am a shut-in and one of the few pleasures in my life is doing the crossword puzzle but you made it too hard. Why have you taken this away from me?”

Eventually, the editor had to relent, and it was a great lesson for a young reporter who was under the impression that the newspaper is all about the stories we were putting on Page One.

Instead, I learned that newspapers are complex bundles of services that people buy for a number of different reasons, and the obituaries and the classified ads were as important to some readers as the stories I was writing. Maybe more important, because when I left that paper a few months later and was replaced by another reporter, there wasn’t even one letter lamenting my disappearance.

If newspapers are complex, what are newspaper people?

I said goodbye to one of them last week, my colleague for the last four and a half years, Mike Harmon, who is as complex as they come.

Known to readers as M.D. Harmon, he was the usually lonely archconservative who had a presence on this page for 20 years, capping a 41-year career at the newspaper, which he joined in the days when typewriters, not computers, were the tools of the trade.

Liberal friends used to ask me how I got along with the author of 10-on-a-scale-of-10 conservative columns, and I would be almost embarrassed to say, “Great.”

Even though we disagreed on virtually every important issue from politics to religion, we rarely argued.

Most of our days were spent on more pressing questions — like what’s the proper possessive form of a last name that ends in “z”?

Writing his column took up a small part of Mike’s time at the newspaper. Most of his days were spent doing important work that the average reader would never notice (unless it wasn’t there).

Everyone knows that M.D. Harmon is a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), but he’s also pretty fond of the First Amendment, and he was proud that an unsigned editorial he wrote about freedom of speech was reprinted on the cover of an annual report of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, an organization that rarely counted him as an ally.

More importantly, Mike spent a lot of time in these last few years fixing the spelling and style of letters to the editor, putting them in readable form to best express the author’s point of view — even when that opinion was that “M.D. Harmon should be fired.”

As only a guy who spent most of his career in the minority could see it, Mike was adamant about everybody getting their say, no matter how much he disagreed with them.

I’ll miss his very careful edits of my column, even when he hated their content. I remember one, in favor of same-sex marriage, where he dropped the proof on my desk and sniffed, “I’ve marked the spelling and grammatical errors.” Left unsaid was that what he saw as errors of reason would be there for all the world to see.

I felt the same about his columns, but felt a professional duty to scan them for typos (they were rare) rather than argue about the ideas behind them. We couldn’t fight all the time. We had pages to put out.

It’s so easy these days to retreat and surround yourself with people who agree on almost everything. A newspaper’s opinion pages are one of the few places in America where people with different views come into contact with each other. That was true for Mike and me, and it is true for readers.

I started thinking about writing this column when I heard that Mike was taking a voluntary layoff — a buyout — and would start his retirement early.

As things have worked out, Mike’s most visible contribution, his column, will remain, while other people will scramble to fill the behind-the-scenes void he leaves behind.

He’ll be like Dear Abby and Peanuts, a presence in the newspaper but not in the newsroom.

For me, it will be the other way around. My position as editorial writer was eliminated in the latest round of budget cuts, and I will transition to a reporting job in the news department.

So, for now, I will say goodbye to this space.

Thanks to everyone who has written to encourage me over the last four years — it really made a difference. And to the people who felt the need to tell me where I got it wrong, thanks for reading.

Even after all these comings and goings, newspapers are still a complex bundle of services.

The challenge for those of us who are sticking around will be finding the combination that gives readers the ones that really matter.

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]


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