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Tumultuous times in 1970s meant lots of good stories

Posted: December 31, 2013 - 4:44pm

Editor’s Note: As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, the Homer News has asked former “Newsies” to reminisce about their time at the newspaper and some of the top stories of the day. In the first such piece, Gary Williams, the fourth publisher of the Homer News, talks about his time at the Homer News from July 1974 to December 1977. Williams also was elected mayor of Homer in 1976, giving him the distinction of being both the Homer News publisher and mayor of Homer at the same time.

 

How I became a newspaper publisher

Who could have forecast that a 20-something Anchor Point area homestead kid, newly arrived in Homer, who’d never written a newspaper article, would be solicited to purchase the town’s only newspaper? Offering to put the power of the press in the hands of a nonjournalist would seem to border on irresponsibility but, apparently, Linda Gjosund, the publisher of the Homer Weekly News, saw something in me that I had not considered.

When my dad became ill in 1973, he asked me to rejoin the family’s hardware store business in Homer. I gave up a public service career in Oregon and came north, wondering how this father-son arrangement was going to play out. It had not been a success before I left home.  

A year later my father retired and asked me to announce the sale of the business to the Homer Chamber of Commerce, where we were members. After the meeting, Linda Gjosund surprised me by putting a hand on my shoulder, saying, “I think you should own the Homer Weekly News.” I said I’d think about it. A month later, after ignoring fatherly advice to stick with what I knew, I negotiated terms with Linda and secured a signature loan from the bank. I was suddenly a publisher with no idea what the next step in the process would be other than that I was obligated to provide the public with a newspaper every week and its name would be changed to the Homer News.

 

 

In the beginning

During the ensuing months with the help of Sandra Flagg, the typesetter, and my buddy, Ken Castner, we managed to meet the deadlines. I continued to work during the day for the new owners of the hardware store because the News couldn’t afford to pay me and I worked nights and weekends at the paper.  Despite losing 10 pounds from a small body frame during the following 12 months, my energy and commitment to what we were doing only increased.  However, it was clear that the way forward called for hiring someone who could do my job better.

Ken’s friend, Tom Kizzia, came to Homer as part of an after-college, Alaska adventure and dropped in at the News office, saying he would be interested in being a reporter. He’d written for his college newspaper, so he was not only qualified to be our reporter, but the editor as well. The News underwent format changes that made the paper more attractive and the reporting and editorial content took a quantum leap forward in quality. Ken and Tom teamed to write great humor, sometimes at my expense, and created a synergy that pushed us to produce a better newspaper every week. The public loved our work, circulation soared and advertising inches continually increased. But, on a horizon beyond my vision, were issues that made good news copy but which would draw me away from the paper.

 

 

The beginning of the end

Tom Kizzia left Homer, returning to the East Coast. The News was without its star editor, but in another stroke of good fortune, Steve Cline offered to take the job.   Steve brought outstanding writing skills and an eye for layout and design that pushed the News to a new level. The Homer News was in another period of rapid growth. It was a time in which I found myself, personally and unintentionally, too near the center of much of the news. It had not been my plan, but I was elected mayor of Homer in 1976; I served in that capacity through 1978.

The dust-up over whether Homer should become self-governing through a Home Rule Charter began quietly in 1975, served a minor eruption in 1976 and blew up into ad hominem stage during most of 1977. As a private citizen, I argued against the charter; as mayor, I was agnostic. The Homer News, with Steve Cline as editorial writer, supported Home Rule.

I could not have forecast that 1977 would be a crucible for the Homer News and particularly for me. January opened with what became known as the “Club Bar Incident.” Brad Hughes had been commissioned to paint a mural on the Club Bar (now Alice’s).  When it was unveiled, a large contingent of the community took offense at the frontal nudity on display. All the more startling was a rant by a local pastor addressed to every boxholder in Homer, accusing the Club Bar owner and others of being part of a Semitic cabal. The combination of the painting and the accusation created an agonizing public event that tested the community emotionally and intellectually. The newspaper served an important role with thorough and accurate reporting and provided unlimited space where readers could vent their passions. The tempest passed without harm to person or place and “Homer-style normality” returned. Shortly thereafter and in quick succession, a series of newsworthy events occupied the headlines and turned my life in a different direction. 

 

 

The end is near

The Homer Bypass project was hotly argued as both a necessary evil and a danger to the heart of downtown Homer. The Kachemak Bay oil lease buy-back, another hot item, roiled on a weekly basis pitting environmentalists against oil boomers. The Homer City Council voted to cancel the campground leases on the end of the Homer Spit in favor of leasing to oil companies for pipe storage. The action stirred the ever-present question about what kind of town Homer should become. The cancellation resulted in the first veto of a city council action cast by a Homer mayor (me), and generated a political storm that blew ill wind in every direction. All the while, the Homer News dutifully reported and occasionally editorialized on the issues of the day, but it did so without my help.

Not everyone understood that. It became clear to me that although I had compartmentalized my personal, my mayoral and my publisher positions so they could be accurately reported and understood, those who were not satisfied with the turn of events in Homer, would not or could not, concede that my functions were independent of themselves. 

As a result, in my mind, I became a potential liability to the paper. I could not bear to see the journalistic excellence the Homer New had achieved, become tarnished for any reason. It was time for me to go.

 

 

The hand-off to Howard Simons

I made it known that the Homer News was for sale. It wasn’t long thereafter that three individuals wanted to negotiate a purchase agreement. I selected Howard Simons, then the managing editor of the Washington Post, because he promised to carry on the work we had begun and because he brought with him Tom Gibboney, who was managing editor at the Anchorage Daily News. They were a strong team who would provide financial and editorial support. I had, with the able hands of Castner, Kizzia and Cline, created a product I was enormously proud of and loved so much that I had to let it go. 

On Dec. 30, 1977, Howard and “Gibb” became the publishers. 

 

 

Epilogue

Now and then, when organizing my papers and memoirs, I run across the signature page of the Homer News sale agreement. It has Howard’s signature as buyer and Ben Bradley’s as witness on the left side and on the right, where my signature would go, was Ken Castner’s signature as “attorney-in-fact.” I had left the city for a previously planned vacation to Honolulu.

 

Gary Williams spent the summer after he sold the paper fishing for halibut in Kachemak Bay. He then headed to Los Angeles where he earned a bachelor’s degree in motion pictures. He returned to Alaska and for six years worked for the Alaska Review, documenting public policy issues in Alaska. Today he lives in Soldotna, where he manages the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Donald E. Gilman River Center.  

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