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Editor wrote 31.5 miles of stories

Jim BarbieriIn 56 years writing for The News-Banner, in Bluffton, Indiana, Jim Barbieri churned out an estimated two million single-column inches, or 31.5 miles, of reports. "Probably wrote more column inches than perhaps any mortal human being" (Mayor Ted Ellis). He attended every imaginable gathering, knew everyone, and wrote about them at length.

When he died last month, aged 77, the small town (population 9500) mourned the editor's passing. "Jim was the finest, hardest-working journalist anywhere in our state, and traveling as I do, I have met them all," Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said in a written statement. "He wrote, he edited, he took pictures, and he'd seen everything; no one ever put anything over on Jim, and I'll bet very few people even tried."

Daniels recalled that during his 2004 campaign for governor, he visited an elementary school before it opened.

"Jim rode his bike from out of town, grilled me, took the pictures, turned down a lift back to town, and rode back to cover a City Council meeting," Daniels said. "Back on the RV [recreation vehicle], my young road companion said, `Who IS that guy?' and I told him, 'Ben, you just met a legend.'"

The Governor said he wished every young journalist in Indiana could have spent "even a day or two understanding Jim Barbieri. Then all our citizens would one day be as well-informed and well served as the citizens of Bluffton have been for so long."

In a moving tribute, Joe Smekens, The News-Banner's managing editor, who was once its linotype operator, wrote:

Jim was a 24/7 news guy. At the same time, he was a loving husband, father and grandfather.

He spent the better part of his 56-plus N-B years catching cat-naps in his chair while cranking out all those stories, most of which were written in the wee hours of the night.

It was not uncommon to see Jim nod off for a few winks at just about anytime of the day, only to see him minutes later go flying by, wide awake and on the way to some kind of a story.

It was not uncommon for him to even doze off while covering a government meeting, only to somehow have the exact and entire story in the next day’s paper. To this day, I don’t know how he did that, so don’t even bother to ask.

It was not uncommon for him to interview someone by looking that person straight in the eye and making all these chicken scratches on his notepad only to have each and every word in the next day’s edition. No tape recorders for Jim.

It was not uncommon for one of our staffers, myself included, to head out to cover an accident or fire, take a picture or two, and turn around to see Jim taking the same picture. It wasn’t because he didn’t think we could do the job. It was just the consummate reporter mode which he was always in, and which was not turned off until the last day.

Writing in The News-Sentinel in the much larger Indiana city of Fort Wayne (population 207,000) Bob Caylor, News-Banner reporter from 1983 to 1985, recalled:

It became an eccentric expression of Barbieri’s drive to cover the news in exhaustive – maybe even exhausting – detail. He wrote headlines as long as ordinary paragraphs and published as many as 50 photographs of a single news event.

His coverage of auto crashes was so thorough that police sometimes attached copies of his stories to their reports. In his prime – the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, roughly speaking – he banged out between 5,000 and 10,000 words of local news and editorial comment in a typical day. (The Evening Forum on a typical day includes about 2,500 to 3,000 words of editorials, guest column and letters.)

In the process, he came to know Bluffton and Wells County better than anyone. Any small-town editor can spare no detail of 4-H fair coverage, and Barbieri certainly didn’t skimp on livestock photos. But his presence at every news event of any size made him such an institution that readers sometimes called him to report crimes or to summon his help.

In 1982, while Barbieri was covering Bluffton High School’s graduation ceremony, he was called away to a phone. A home south of Bluffton had been invaded by a clearly deranged young man on one of the worst LSD trips ever. In a hysterical frenzy, he’d started tearing up the house. The homeowner tried to calm the tripper. Finally, the acid victim agreed that he could tell his story to Barbieri. Only Barbieri. That was the only way he would leave the house peacefully.

So Barbieri drove to the rural home, took the homeowner and the tripper for a ride that lasted four hours, during which Barbieri heard every detail of the young man’s paranoid delusions about the FBI, the KGB, the Mafia and so on. The ride ended at a hospital, and the episode was retold in thousands of words in the next edition of The News-Banner.

He took every crime committed in Bluffton personally, as if a swindle anywhere picked his own pocket. When a con man played on church connections to sell tens of thousands of dollars in worthless stock to Wells County residents, Barbieri chronicled the unraveling scheme in dozens of stories and sent reporters to other states to report on the enterprises the stock represented.

Indiana's senior US Senator, Richard Lugar (who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) paid tribute to Jim Barbieri, "a great Hoosier newspaperman and civic leader" in a statement to be published in the Congressional Record.

The senator said Barbieri had attended DePauw University in Indiana where he was editor of the student newspaper. After graduation, Barbieri had turned down a job offer from the Indianapolis Star to work at the small-town News-Banner.

The senator continued:

Beginning in 1950, Jim Barbieri worked almost every job conceivable at the Bluffton paper. He was a reporter, advertising salesman and circulation director. He became general manager of the venerable Wells County publication in 1975, and then co-owner, president and publisher in 1986.

It was not unusual that on any given day he might write every page-one story, the editorial, and if someone called in sick, he'd pick up delivery route too. He was always available because he only missed one day of work over a 50-year stretch.

Jim Barbieri had that venerable small-town newspaperman ready opinion on virtually everything that passes us by in life. Whether it was roads, parks or the time Indiana should set its clocks in the summer, Jim used his unique forum to editorialize.

I knew he was always looking over my shoulder providing ready comment on anything I did in the state, national or international arena. On visits to Bluffton, Jim Barbieri would cover the community event I was attending, and then in an extensive interview, explore my thoughts on the issues of the day. He would then exhaustively report all of it in the newspaper astutely and accurately. He did not cease to impress all with his indefatigability.

The senator recalled a poem Barbieri wrote to celebrate his 50 years at the newspaper:

So that the way I work may be out of date,
But don't try to bend me and make me go straight,
Let me go on in my very old fashion,
Covering the news with an old time passion.

The style in which my career has been blest,
To you may be faulty, but I (gave) it my best,
When God takes me home at the end of my years,
He'll not straighten me out and pop all my gears.

He'll say 'you, reporter, for the sins that you bring,
We'll take you like you are with a bent angelic wing.'
And we all know that Heaven could not run well,
Without a journalist to give them all hell.

So in the celestial press room we bid you to trod,
But don't ever misquote Peter or misspell God.

 

BLUFFTON REMEMBERS JIM

Signs around town spoke volumes about how folks felt about the editor of their daily newspaper.

"Jim Barbieri, Bluffton's Best," proclaimed a sign outside a local hotel.

"God Bless Jim Barbieri," read another outside a main street bank.

"We will miss you, Jim," was the message on a sign outside a tire store.
- Keith Robinson, Fort Wayne News.

POSTSCIPT from Joe Smekens: The governor was wrong when he said Jim rode a bicycle out to a school function. Actually, Jim walked . . . .3 1/2 miles one way. Jim walked 5-10 miles every day. He NEVER rode a bike anywhere. The governor just assumed he rode a bike.

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  •  Excerpts from News-Banner articles and photograph copied courtesy managing editor Joe Smekens.
 

Story first posted May 2006

Copyright © 2006

Eric Shackle

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