I WAS WARNED about Elinor Mettler by a colleague shortly after I arrived here more than a decade ago to take over as editor of a newspaper called The Independent. Elinor had founded the paper, then called the Roe Jan Independent, and though she had sold it about 15 years before I showed up, my colleague assured me she’d make me feel like she was still in charge. I scoffed at that. Then I met her.
She introduced herself, reminded me about the column she was writing, explained why it mattered, told me a few dozen important facts about the history of the region, none of which I knew, and mentioned the role she had played in some of those events. I hadn’t said anything but hello.
She didn’t act like she still owned the newspaper, but it was apparent from the outset that she knew more about what I was doing than I did. She also had a missionary zeal for projects she believed would improve the community. She loved the Roe Jan, that southeastern spine of Columbia County that takes its name from the Roeliff Jansen Kill as it flows through on its way to the Hudson River. And I suspect that in addition to her genuine desire to help, she wanted to assess what sort of recruit I’d make for the various good causes she pursued. I’m afraid I was a disappointment.
Elinor Mettler died suddenly last week. She was 85. Her obituary appears in this week’s edition as does a news story about her life by our associate editor, Diane Valden, who worked for her at the Roe Jan Independent. When you read about Elinor’s accomplishments you get some sense of the impact she had on this county, but there’s an intangible aspect that needs some attention too.
Running a community newspaper offers precious little in the way of glamour or wealth. And the long hours required to produce a paper each week quickly discourage most people, a fact just as true now as when Elinor Mettler assembled the first issue of the Roe Jan Independent on her dining room table nearly 40 years ago. But she found purpose in telling the stories of people in Copake, Hillsdale, Ancram and neighboring communities, and she never tired of reminding her readers how fortunate we are to live in such a special place. That focus shaped the image people here have of this place as well as how others view us.
She used unadorned language to do this in news stories and under the heading Down Maple Lane. Some of those columns are collected in a book published last year titled “Down Maple Lane: A Place to Call Home in the Upper Hudson Valley” (The History Press, 2010, www.historypress.net). Most of the columns date from the 1970s and ’80s, but she included a handful of pieces from 2009, when she revived the column on an occasional basis for this newspaper.
We considered it an honor and a major coup that she agreed to write for The Columbia Paper. More than that, there’s no getting around the fact that this paper might not exist if it weren’t for her vision and energy. She nurtured the theme of connectedness that animated the Roe Jan Independent and made it must reading. She put it in good hands when she sold it to Tony Jones and Vicki Simons. They built it into a countywide newspaper, but one that went to lengths to preserve the community roots she established. And not even the absentee newspaper chain that took over The Independent a decade ago and closed it in 2009 could erase her legacy.
Elinor set a journalistic standard worth striving for. Having grown up in New York City, she had a broad enough outlook to recognize the value of life in the villages and farms of the county. She shared what she appreciated about that life by reporting the story in plain English. It might sound sentimental, except that she backed it up with facts, insight and a talent for telling stories.
In the epilogue of “Down Maple Lane” she includes a column from 1976 that catalogs the attributes of a small town. In a paragraph near end she wrote that in a small town, “When you read someone’s name in the local paper, you actually know who they are, and so does the editor.”
She was that editor, and this is a better place because she practiced her craft among us.