With Alan White as editor, ‘anything was possible’

Photo courtesy of Eagle-Tribune

Snow flew sideways as I read the neon words: “In our thoughts and prayers Alan White.” On that January morning, I eyed the electronic board hanging outside the Plum Island town office, stunned that ‘Al’ was gone.

Al was a legend at the Eagle-Tribune, a mid-sized daily in Andover, Massachusetts. He taught me and scores of other young reporters how to “see” stories, how to search for the truth, how to stand your ground and never, ever give up.

Bespectacled and soft-spoken, Al was the New Hampshire editor in 1984 when I began reporting on Pelham, New Hampshire, my hometown. Though I had worked at weekly papers in New Hampshire and Ireland, this was my first “big” daily paper, and I was nervous. I soon learned Al was not fond of idle chatter, and nothing slipped by him. Long, wordy sentences were cut. Loose facts were questioned. Accuracy was imperative. If your mother told you she loved you, Al wanted proof.

And so I needed to assuage my doubts he was really gone. I continued to search for the brown clapboard cottage known as “The George” where Al found solace after a hectic day in the newsroom.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

In the three decades since I had left the Eagle-Tribune and worked at papers in Florida and Maine, I still called or visited Al to talk “stories.” He instinctively knew how to hone information, find the story’s essence.

I had planned to see Al in mid-January before heading to Newfoundland to work on film connections for my book. Al helped me focus the story in the book’s early stages and he was excited about my trip. On the day I was to stop by, Al explained that he had worked until 2 am and was tired. I knew he had a weak heart and other health issues, so I promised to call again soon. We would get together another time. Forty-eight hours later, police found Al dead in his home. I learned about his death in Newfoundland when I saw a former colleague’s Facebook post that said “RIP Al.”

Shocked, I couldn’t stop thinking about Al. He had worked at the Eagle-Tribune for 43 of his 68 years. He started out as a “cub” reporter and later went on to work as state editor, city editor, managing editor, and for the past nine years, executive editor. Under his guidance, the paper won dozens of national awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes. I was fortunate to work on one of those stories, a year-long investigative series about first-degree killer William Horton Jr. and Massachusetts’ flawed prison furlough system.

In 1987 during the Horton and furlough investigation, the newspaper (then known as the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune) was a mid-sized paper with a circulation of about 60,000. It wasn’t a newspaper giant like The New York Times, The Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal with unlimited resources.  But with Al leading the newsroom, anything was possible. He read five papers a day and was a brilliant wordsmith and intrepid editor. He didn’t kowtow to the rich, the famous, or the powerful. He taught reporters to get the story, to find answers, to seek the truth no matter what the obstacles were or how many officials uttered, “No comment.”

The Horton story proved especially difficult because of Massachusetts’ Criminal Offenders Records Act, which kept prisoners’ records secret. When a criminal was paroled or released on unsupervised furlough, no one—not the police or citizens—was notified. Citizens in our community were outraged Horton had even been considered for an unsupervised weekend pass. Horton had been sentenced to life without parole for stabbing teenage gas-station attendant Joey Fournier 19 times and stuffing his body in a trash can in 1974.

When the Massachusetts Department of Corrections Commissioner refused to talk to us after we learned Horton escaped while out on furlough, Al told us “Get answers from other sources.”

Our readers wanted answers, and Al demanded we get them. I spent several nights waiting outside the homes of prison guards, hoping to get information. I visited Walpole, the maximum security prison, where Horton had been locked up. There, at the prison with guard towers and razor wire, other first degree killers were peeved at Horton. “He’s giving us a bad name,” they explained.

Horton, the killers revealed, wasn’t a model prisoner. He had been in fights and caught with drugs on multiple occasions; he shouldn’t have been eligible for an unsupervised furlough, they said. Horton had been released on nine unsupervised furloughs before he was let out a 10th time in June 1986. During that weekend pass, he won a $1,000 lottery ticket and decided not to return to prison.

He fled to Florida and eventually ended up in Maryland, where he held a young couple hostage for 11 hours, twice raping the woman at gunpoint and repeatedly stabbing her fiancé. Though the Massachusetts Department of Corrections officials insisted releasing killers like Horton was not unusual and that their furlough program was similar to several others states in the country, I had little reason to accept their word. And I knew what Al would say had I been foolish enough to try and slip that into a story: “Prove it,” he’d admonish.

After more than 25 calls to federal agencies, I learned there was scant information on prison furlough policies nationwide, so I called the Department of Corrections in 49 states, interviewed prison officials and did my own survey. Massachusetts, I learned, had one of the nation’s most liberal furlough policies. There, killers were let out on furlough to determine if they could act responsibly in society and should be paroled.

In every other state, it was the reverse. Killers were not allowed unsupervised furloughs until they had been cleared for parole and were within six months to two years of their release. After I finished reporting and writing the Dec. 6, 1987 story, Al quietly told me, “Great job, Barbie.”

There were no better words a reporter could hear. Al was particularly proud of our year-long investigation that affected lives, laws, and a presidential election. Presidential candidate George Bush Sr. used our stories about Massachusetts’ furlough program and Horton’s escape to criticize his opponent Massachusetts’ Governor Michael Dukakis for being “soft on crime.”

Our reporting also changed laws. Massachusetts’ killers who are not sanctioned for parole aren’t allowed out on unsupervised furloughs anymore. And the CORI law that was used to keep Horton and other criminals’ records secret, was also abolished.

Three decades later, as I searched for Al’s home on a January morning, I wished for another chance to work with Al, to seek the truth in these challenging and confrontational times. The wind whipped sleet onto my windshield as I spotted a small fishing boat parked in a driveway. I pulled into the gravel lot and hoped to find Al’s relatives, the nieces and nephews he adored, and though it was irrational, I still hoped to find Al.

But “The George” was quiet, empty. Al’s fishing poles leaned against a corner of his deck. “The George” sign hung from the porch wall. Al had the sign made after he learned his home—one of the oldest on Plum Island—was originally called “The George.” The tidal marsh beyond Al’s deck rippled in the storm. Al often admired the ever-changing marsh hues in warmer weather as he barbecued or cleaned fish.

Later that afternoon, newspaper colleagues, Al’s family and friends would gather at the local funeral home for his wake. Just back from Newfoundland, I had commitments in Maine. Still, I wanted to share my condolences with his family. I began writing a note as a Newbury police officer drove along the deserted road. He hit the brakes when he spotted my van. Within minutes, the cop returned. I jumped when he suddenly appeared at my window.

“I’m Al’s friend; he was my editor,” I quickly explained.

The officer nodded and though he seemed to believe me, he shared Al’s philosophy: Prove it. I handed him my license and he checked to make sure I didn’t have a record of breaking and entering. As I headed back down the beach road, I thought of Al and how he would have smiled and commented, “Causing trouble again, Barbie.”

Before I drove north, I stopped at the Newburyport funeral home. Though the back door was open, no one answered when I called out.  Flower bouquets for Al rested on the floor. Further down the hall, a podium stood with an overhead marker reading, “Alan.” I left my note for Al’s family and peeked into a nearby room.

My mentor, my friend, the man who shared his passion for words, for stories, for accuracy and truth lay silent and still. I stood in the doorway, unable to walk into the darkened room. “Thank you, Al,” I whispered, wiping away tears. “I will never forget you or your lessons.”

As Al had taught me, I had silenced my doubts on this blustery January day. But this was one truth I did not want to realize. Rest in peace and farewell, old friend.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Barbara Walsh has also worked for newspapers in Ireland, New Hampshire, Florida, and Maine, where she now lives. She’s also the author of August Gale: A Father and Daughter’s Journey into the Storm.