Published May 13. 2010 4:00AM Updated May 13. 2010 1:03PM
Deane C. Avery, a quintessential newspaper man who rose through the ranks of The Day from beat reporter to co-publisher and editor, never got over the fact that The Day even bothered to hire him in the first place.
Reminiscing when he retired in 1984, ending a 37-year career at the newspaper, Mr. Avery said it was a "fluke" he ever got the job. He maintained he was brought on board because he was from the Groton side of the Thames River and knew where the streets were.
Mr. Avery, president of The Day Publishing Co. from 1976 to 1984, died early Wednesday at Avalon Health Center in Stonington. He was 87.
"I wouldn't be hired today,'' Mr. Avery said in a 1984 interview with Day reporter Greg Stone. "I had no experience. I didn't even know how to use a typewriter. I had to hunt and peck away.'
"John DeGange (an editor at the time) was very tolerant. More so than Gordon Bodenwein (son of The Day's longtime Publisher Theodore Bodenwein), who was an editorial writer and sat behind me,'' Mr. Avery told Stone. "He sort of clucked to himself over my misspellings and other errors."
But Mr. Avery became a role model for young reporters, urging them to do better and praising them when they did.
"Deane Avery proudly embodied every stereotype of the classic newspaper man. He was worldly, wise, intensely curious and quick with his trademark puckish humor,'' said Day Publisher Gary Farrugia. "He loved New London and the rich cast of characters who found their way into the news stories he edited. But he especially loved his life's work, The Day Paper."
Nelson C.L. Brown of Noank said his longtime friend was a "fine fellow.'' The two graduated from Fitch High School in 1940.
"He would interrogate me on my thoughts, and I would reciprocate,'' said Brown, a former state representative who became Speaker of the House in 1956. Early in their careers, the two became friendly news rivals when Brown worked briefly for a local radio station and Mr. Avery was a reporter. He said they were both assigned to cover President Harry Truman's visit to New London and ran into each other while trying to figure out how the trip was going.
"Deane was always interested in current events and we discussed them quite often,'' Brown said. "He was a very fine person. And I shall miss him."
From war to newsroom
Mr. Avery began his career at the The Day in 1947. Before that he was a Navy dive-bomber pilot who saw combat in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He also attended the University of Connecticut for two years.
At The Day Mr. Avery held a number of newsroom positions, including managing editor and executive editor, and at one point he was the newspaper's public relations director.
He covered landmark events such as the launching of the first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, and was managing editor during one of the great maritime tragedies of modern times, the sinking of the U.S. Navy submarine Thresher in the North Atlantic in 1963. Many of the families of the sailors who died lived in the region.
Reid MacCluggage, retired editor and publisher of The Day who succeeded Mr. Avery in 1984, called him "a singular man who was larger than just editor of the newspaper."
"He was a local man, a man of the community. He loved where he lived and made a great life there,'' MacCluggage said. "I think of him as that old dying breed of New England Yankee - thrifty, laconic, conservative and that understated wit that everyone knew about."
Karen Neild said her father had a great sense of humor and was a pleasure to be around.
"He respected people from all walks of life,'' she said.
Mr. Avery and E. Wesley Hammond were named co-publishers of The Day in 1976 when former Publisher Barnard L. Colby retired. Mr. Avery took on the news side of the business while Hammond managed the business end. Although they were different in temperament and style, the two men never had an unkind word to say about each other.
The pair retired together in 1984 after bringing the newspaper into the modern computer age and starting a Sunday edition in 1981.
Mr. Avery was active in his retirement, flying his single-engine plane and sometimes circling friends' houses. He and his wife, the former Shirley DeWolfe, lived on Wolf Neck Road in Stonington and frequently rode around town on a tandem bicycle. Mrs. Avery died in 2008. They had been married for 56 years.
Mr. Avery also served on the state Freedom of Information Commission from 1985 to 1995. MacCluggage said he was a staunch defender of the public's right to know.
In 1994, the newspaper created the Deane C. Avery Award, which annually recognizes a person who advances the cause of freedom of speech.
Mr. Avery was a member of Rotary and other civic organizations and was widely known in the community. There were few places he could go where he did not end up in a conversation about The Day, and he always worried about how news stories would affect the community.
He recalled once that while he was rowing on the Mystic River with his wife, a passing powerboat captain yelled out "Hey, Avery! I hope you sink!'' The man had not forgotten an editorial in The Day that had been critical of him.
Get it right
Mr. Avery was often concerned with mistakes creeping into the paper, like calling a road a street or misspelling a name. It was the small errors, he felt, that affected the paper's credibility.
He was well-known in the newsroom for the notes he would leave for reporters. Ann Baldelli, associate editorial page editor who was hired at The Day in 1978, said the notes Mr. Avery left were always constructive, whether he was pointing out an error, a style point, accuracy, or highlighting when something was done well.
Baldelli kept some of the notes, which were typed on copy paper, short and to-the-point, and signed with his initials. They usually arrived in a recycled envelope.
"He was the greatest guy in the world,'' said Baldelli, who remained friends with Mr. Avery and his wife after his retirement. "He cared deeply for every single person in the company. He was an old Yankee; reserved, but soft-hearted underneath."
Talent and compassion
Alcino G. Almeida, retired general manager of The Day, said Mr. Avery was a talented newspaper executive.
"He had good instincts and knew how to put out a newspaper for the reader,'' Almeida said. "He contributed enormously to the many changes in the newspaper."
Almeida agreed with others that Mr. Avery was a "stickler for perfection and detail," but said he also had a great sense of humor and cared for The Day's employees.
"On a number of occasions I saw him near tears because of an employee crisis,'' Almeida said. "He was an exceptional person and I will miss him tremendously.''
Mr. Avery leaves his daughter, Karen Neild, his son, Latham Avery, and two grandsons.
A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, May 22, at the Groton Congregational Church, 162 Monument St.