When the legendary Margaret Chase Smith reigned as senior senator from Maine in the last half of the last century, she generally spoke to only one reporter. That was Don Larrabee, who represented this newspaper and several others in Maine and was the dominant news link between Washington and Maine for over 30 years. When he passed away July 18 at age 93, he was remembered in a way that hardly reflects today’s bitter climate of media and politics.

The first words from former Sen. George Mitchell, while noting Don’s reporting skills, were “a very nice man.” Sen. Susan Collins called him “a wonderful man.” I think these sentiments are accurate.

Don, a Portland native and graduate of Deering High School, went to Washington after serving in the Army Air Corps at the end of World War II. He carried Maine’s value system throughout his life. By today’s journalistic standards, he was non-confrontational. But integrity flowed through his every vein. He asked tough questions but in a quiet, almost apologetic way. It was actually very effective.

D.C. BUREAU CHIEF

Don ran the Griffin-Larrabee News Bureau, which functioned as the Washington Bureau for nearly 40 newspapers in Maine, Massachusetts, Iowa, New York, Pennsylvania and Alaska. At its height in the early 1970s, the bureau had four reporters working for Don, the most pleasant of bosses. I was hired by Don in 1965, five months past my 22nd birthday. I had been reporting for my hometown newspaper, the Springfield (Massachusetts) Daily News, and suddenly I was working out of a desk in the Capitol’s Senate Press Gallery. It was culture shock writ large.

When it came to being mentored in this new and challenging environment, I could not have landed with a better person. I stayed with Griffin-Larrabee for four years before being hired to join The Boston Globe Washington Bureau in 1969.

In his coverage for Massachusetts papers, Don had gotten to know the state’s young new senator, John F. Kennedy, in the early ’50s. He remained friendly over the years with Kennedy’s estimable speechwriter Ted Sorensen. I recall a passage in Sorensen’s book “Kennedy” that I thought referred to Don among others. Sorensen wrote:

Don Larrabee

“At the heart of it all (JFK’s press relations) was an attitude he had expressed to me as Senator when complimenting me on my friendships with Massachusetts reporters. ‘Always remember,’ he had added, ‘that their interests and ours ultimately conflict.’ ”

One of the lessons I learned from Don was that despite his cordial relations with many politicians, he understood that division. And he conducted his professional life accordingly.

Don’s career coincided with both the Cold War and strong anti-communist sentiments He reported on Sen. Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” in 1954 when she scolded fellow Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy for his outlandish accusations against alleged communist sympathizers. Less famous, but duly reported by Don, was her warning that the growing number of young men being drafted into the military would be the undoing of support for the Vietnam War (though she herself was a supporter).

MAINE ROOTS RAN DEEP

His coverage also coincided with a time when an expansive federal government was viewed more favorably than it is today. So the pioneering environmental legislation pushed by Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, D-Maine, was a major topic, both in Maine and nationally. Don was regularly consulted by major TV and newspaper reporters when Muskie began to emerge as a national figure.

If a new postmaster was appointed in Millinocket, Don reported it. If there was a new hitch in a long-standing controversy over a proposed hydroelectic dam on the St. John River, Don was all over it. When Cape Elizabeth’s Harold Pachios was serving on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s press staff, he was interviewed by Don. Even the nomination of a possible Cherry Festival queen by D.C.’s Maine State Society did not escape his notice.

In the best sense of an American life, Don never forgot his Maine heritage, but he was hopelessly in love with Washington. And it was probably a more lovable place then. He loved its characters and its foibles. He took great pleasure in becoming a stalwart performer at the annual Gridiron Club show that poked fun at politicians. And he held leadership positions in the National Press Club, an institution from which younger, more cynical reporters likely steered clear.

Don retired as a newsman in 1978 and spent another 11 years running an office established by Gov. James Longley to monitor federal issues for the folks in Augusta.

Arguably, Don Larrabee was a significant figure in Maine’s history, yet his name remains virtually unknown today. That would not be a big deal to Don. The fact that those of us who knew him remember him so fondly as “a wonderful man” would mean much more. And so we do.