Visitors are charmed by the simplicity of the place: rustic resorts, evening fish boils, and The Albatross Drive-In. There are no fast-food chains, no water slides, and no gaudy T-shirt shops. Cellphone and Internet service are spotty. The island was home to Potawatomi Indians until Scandinavian fishermen and farmers arrived in the mid-1800s.
All summer long the cheery red Cherry Train transports tourists to pristine School House Beach, a quarter moon of white limestone with sweeping views of Washington Harbor. Just a stone’s throw from the beach, the Washington Island Town Cemetery is a catalogue of island settlers: Hansen, Ellefson, Jorgenson, Andersen. The names on the gravestones are the same ones printed in the Observer’s articles, photo captions, and advertisements: Hansen’s BP Amoco; Ellefson’s Dock; Jorgenson & Son Excavating; Andersen Construction. These third- and fourth-generation islanders shop, volunteer, and ride the ferry with the second-home crowd that fuels the island economy. “It doesn’t matter who you are,” says Lorel Gordon, 62, an island native who founded the original newspaper in 1981. “You can be the top exec of a huge company; you can be a janitor. You don’t have a façade here.”
Gordon launched the paper as an advertising vehicle for local businesses. She wrote articles about island characters and happenings, and the paper grew into a respected news source. “People really just wanted a connection,” Gordon says. “They felt they were getting something of what was going on, and they wanted more.”
Meeting constant deadlines was a lot of work, though, and Gordon sold the newspaper in 1992 to the Toerpes, who owned it for the next 20 years. Gail Toerpe describes her version of the Observer as “cozy,” but readers chuckled at articles about the family dog and political rants from a grumpy island columnist. “If you didn’t like it,” says Toerpe, “you didn’t have to read it.”
The news void that developed during the Observer’s “cozy” years was often filled by famously virile island rumors: who got mad at the town board meeting; whose daughter got engaged over the weekend; and on and on. “A fart on one side becomes a tornado by the time it gets to the other side of the island,” says 36-year-old Town Chairman Joel Gunnlaugsson. The fourth-generation islander is a ferryboat captain with a diamond stud earring and Icelandic blue eyes that are as common as wildflowers on Washington Island.
Splendid isolation means the town provides services usually handled by a city or county: police, fire, road maintenance, garbage, utilities. So the “tornadoes” become Gunnlaugsson’s problem. “When all hell breaks loose, unfortunately, everybody calls me,” he says.
On-the-job training Mary Marik, left, gathers news and gossip on the porch of the Red Cup Coffee House. Marik, who served as the first managing editor under the Observer’s new owners, left her Parks Commission seat when it conflicted with her reporting. (Jane Hampden)
The civic storms are intriguing to Mary Marik, 68, who signed on as the Observer’s first managing editor under the new owners. She served on the island’s Parks Committee and, before retiring, worked as a copy editor at a think tank in Washington, DC. With her spiky silver hair and signature gray glasses, Marik quickly became the face of the paper around town. She had never written for newspapers but loved reading them, and had edited several journalism textbooks. She was fascinated with the principles of newsgathering. “There’s a difference between reading about it and doing it,” Marik says. “But the care and feeding of authors is a lot like keeping in touch with sources up here—talking to people, calling people.”
Marik’s approach to her new job was shaped by one of the first people to embrace the idea of buying the Observer. Rich Shereikis, a professor emeritus of English literature at the University of Illinois-Springfield, had written feature stories and movie reviews and contributed to national magazines (including the Columbia Journalism Review). He and his wife, Judy, purchased their cottage on Washington Island in 1996. Among the new owners, Shereikis became the “journalism with a capital J” guy, and chairman of the editorial committee. “Rich was insistent that we cover town issues so readers could understand what was happening, even if the news might upset people,” Marik recalls. “He said ‘news is news,’ even if it wasn’t comfortable.”
I talked with Shereikis in the summer of 2012 on his breezy screened porch. He had been a newspaper owner for all of six months and was wrestling with the question of how to sensitively cover vexing issues such as the shrinking school population. “I feel torn, as someone who admires real journalism,” he said. “I feel like we should be doing it, but at the same time, it’s different in a small town.”