A final farewell to a Day original
We said our final farewell last Sunday to Stan DeCoster, the venerable, decorated, longtime reporter and editor at The Day who always clung tightly to the important rule of journalism, that the story was always more important than the person writing it.
DeCoster, who worked at The Day from 1967 to 2001, died at age 80 on Dec. 23 after an extended bout with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. In retirement, he willingly shared the challenges of his final few years with friends, but never wanted sympathy; just patience, understanding and an occasional lunch or phone conversation with his former Day colleagues.
The more than 100 who attended — including more than 50 past and present Day colleagues who traveled from as far as Arizona — were on hand at Filomena's on Sunday to remember a humble, beloved colleague who was as good at getting a story as anyone who ever worked at the paper during its storied 143-year history.
Among other beats, DeCoster covered New London City Hall and the Connecticut legislature. He was among the first reporters there during The Day's prime in the 1970s to undertake investigative work, along with journalists like Greg Stone, Morgan McGinley, Joan Poro and the late Dan Stets and John Peterson.
Unlike the others who worked with bare-knuckle intensity, DeCoster's style wasn't as hard-edged as the others. Reid MacCluggage, The Day's editor and publisher from 1984-2001, likened him to Columbo, the venerable TV detective whose easy, unassuming manner solved cases as well as the usual confrontational means. DeCoster's approach, MacCluggage said, "put subjects at ease and often made them say more than they intended."
DeCoster's interviews never took a "gotcha" approach. In fact, recalled former New London Mayor and state Rep. Jay B. Levin, he would often read quotes back to his subject to make sure he had it right and that subjects were sure they had worded their own comments accurately, if not articulately. Often, they would talk their way right onto Page 1 of the next day's paper.
He took no pleasure from exposing those who had strayed from the legal or ethical path, but he never showed them fear or favor, either, regardless of their power or influence. Instead of leading with his ego and flowery prose, he reported the old-fashioned way, but the right way — who, what, when, where, why and how.
He was good under pressure, especially back when The Day was an afternoon paper and had a pressure-packed late-morning deadline. He was at his best, though, when he could use his deliberate and thorough style to lock up a major story with nothing other than fact after fact after fact.
During the post-Watergate era when so many reporters wanted to be the next Woodward or Bernstein, DeCoster's everyman persona made him a favorite among his colleagues and most of the people he covered.
Despite his lofty status in the newsroom, he was easy in conversation, often among the first — if not the first — to welcome new reporters to the team. He'd take them to the second-floor composing room for coffee, lunch after the late-morning deadline, or to The Dutch Tavern for a couple of beers (or more) after work.
In 1987, he notably set aside another journalistic rule and became part of a story he was covering. He wrote about the plight of a homeless man, Nathaniel Branch, a quiet, friendly street person known to everyone as Clarence.
During a harsh winter when DeCoster would bring food and coffee to Branch at his hovel behind Bank Street, he took action when the man complained that his feet hurt. After DeCoster got New London Police and local hospital staff involved, doctors discovered gangrene on both of Branch's feet, portions of which had to be amputated or else Branch would have died.
Steven Slosberg, then The Day's columnist, wrote: "Fair to say the work of Stan DeCoster, The Day's senior reporter, and staff photographer Rick Kelley, probably saved Nathaniel Branch's life.
"In my experience with newspapers," Slosberg wrote, "I've never come across a story about which that can be said."
Indeed, that was DeCoster's very human way. To hell with the rule, he got involved because it was the right thing to do.
He observed and worked with a lot of reporters and editors during his nearly 3 1/2 decades at The Day. He recognized early on that one of them, Izaskun "Sassy" Larraneta, a young, new reporter at The Day with whom he had collaborated on a story in 1995, had great reporting skills and would go far in the business. Sure enough, she would work her way steadily through the ranks over the years. Today, she is The Day's executive editor.
At Sunday's celebration of life, Larraneta recalled learning from DeCoster's research technique and interviewing approach, most important, that journalists needn't worry about difficult interviews as long as they had the facts on their side. DeCoster always did.
Fourteen years after retiring, he wrote an op-ed piece recalling with fondness his earlier years at The Day, when it was an afternoon newspaper, humming with activity in a larger, better-staffed newsroom, replete with so many colorful characters and memories. And, he lamented the hard times that had befallen the industry.
"I believe that many journalists today are as good — maybe better — than those of yesteryear," he concluded. "However, we had more fun."
Those of us who worked with him were better journalists for it, and we did have more fun while we were at it. More important, though, he was one of those special souls who also made us happier and better people.
In a life well-lived, you can't do much better than that.
Bill Stanley, a former reporter at The Day, is a retired vice president of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.
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