The facts about Bill Everhart, departing maestro of opinion
PITTSFIELD — Someone else handled puzzle pages at The Eagle, but for nearly 30 years, it's been Bill Everhart's duty to guide readers through riddles of our time, local and global, as chief of the newspaper's opinion section.
On Friday, after lining up several days' worth of local and national commentary to take the paper through the weekend, Everhart doffed his thinking cap and retired, closing a 29-year run. "I'm not going to miss Friday," he said.
Though his name appeared daily atop the editorial page, Everhart, who is 69, has worked behind the scenes since the first Bush presidency, coaching columnists, managing letter-writers and, importantly, shaping the newspaper's own views on public issues, in consultation with an editorial board.
"Bert has been the conscience of this community — and he's done it with dignity and class," President & Publisher Fredric D. Rutberg said of Everhart (using his nickname) at a company farewell this week.
Executive Editor Kevin Moran handed Everhart a commemorative statue of an eagle with an inscription mentioning his "steadfast resolve" to serve the Berkshires. "You get to do work that makes a difference in the community," Moran told Everhart.
Everhart is a low-key and even-keeled guy — requisites for lasting three decades in the job. He might have hit delete on some of the plaque's praise, but agrees he leaves a job with a high public purpose.
"I like to think we help push the discussion along," he said.
Everhart passes that duty now to Dave Coffey, the current deputy editorial page editor. After recharging for a bit at home in Dalton, Everhart said he plans to contribute columns and perhaps help with editorials from time to time, allowing him to keep a toe in newsroom life, which he says he'll miss.
"There is always a lot of fun along the way, when you work for a newspaper," he said.
Eye for opinion
When he joined the opinion section in 1991, at 40, Everhart was eager for a change after years covering sports. The editorial page editor at the time, Don MacGillis, recalls shopping around the newsroom for help. MacGillis liked that his prospect — already a veteran of a handful of journalism jobs, including at the former North Adams Transcript — wrote movie reviews. "Which told me, `Aha,' he can handle opinion," he said.
MacGillis also liked that Everhart had grown up on Bradford Street on Pittsfield's West Side. "He knew all the old feuds and had a sensitivity for that. He had a marvelous way of expressing opinions," MacGillis said.
Standing with Eagle employees this week, MacGillis reminded Everhart they'd once disagreed about whether the Pittsfield Suns baseball team's home field should be placed where the West Street CVS stands.
"I want to confess right now. You were right and I was wrong," MacGillis said.
Another former opinion colleague, Daniel Bellow, recalls the many times the two men talked through issues that needed to be explained in their pages.
"We'd get it all straight and he'd say, `You write that.' It was just so much fun every day," Bellow said. He remembers watching Everhart sit listening, during countless meetings with people who'd come peddling one civic project or another. "His eyes would just get narrower and narrower. Until they were just two paper cuts," Bellow said.
Everhart was listening, in other words, but not convinced.
Bellow recalls how dubious Everhart was of President George W. Bush's plan to go to war in Iraq. "He'd say, `this is a loser. It's going to be a debacle and when everybody comes to their senses, they'll see that we were right.'"
"I think we were vindicated," Everhart said, speaking of that stance. "Unlike The New York Times, we never had to apologize for editorial support for the war in Iraq. We never bought into any of that."
Former Pittsfield Mayor James Ruberto was one of those whose leadership, as with all public servants, came in for editorial review and comment. Today, count Ruberto a major fan.
"I hold him in the highest regard," he said. "I found him to have penetrating questions — and truly come to reasoned conclusions."
That's true, he says, even when the paper's positions didn't align with the mayor's. "I understood that there was conscious effort to think through what the goals were for the city of Pittsfield," he said, speaking of Everhart. "He is a true, true, true journalistic wonder."
Though the opinion section once employed a letters editor, shepherding those small commentaries into the paper has been Everhart's duty for years. In that space, he's tried to cultivate a free-wheeling public debate. Or as he says, "Let people bash it out in print."
One of his regular contributors has been Thomas D. Gilardi of Pittsfield, who reckons he has sent in more than 70 letters in that last decade. Maybe 100.
Gilardi's political views do not fall in step with the paper's typical left-center views.
"He's been more than fair to me. We had our ups and downs because I'm a conservative. I'd say 95 percent of the time, he was fair to me. I even consider him a friend."
Gilardi says he once invited Everhart to visit at the family's home in Florida. "Nope, I'm a skier," he says Everhart responded.
Art of opinion
After years spent prodding others to share their views, Everhart, is an easy interview. You ask. He answers.
- On leaving during a pandemic, and economic slump: "This is not the way I wanted to go out." Newsrooms, he fears, may never be the same.
- On choosing to sign on with The Eagle in 1983: "It was really the place to be, a classy newspaper."
- What he thinks of his early editorials: "They're choppy. They don't flow. I think my writing got better. I was still feeling my way in making and defending a point."
- What an editorial most needs: "I can't stand one that doesn't have a sharp opinion. Come down strongly on what you believe, or don't bother."
- In 31 years, the top challenge: Surviving the years of chain ownership, after the Miller family sold the paper to Dean Singleton's Media News Group. "I was worried that we would lose integrity as an independent voice." (The paper returned to local ownership in 2016.)
- Did you? He thinks not, and recalls that though Singleton didn't want the paper to endorse the Senate campaign of John Kerry in 1996, it did, backing him over William Weld. "We thought we were all going to be fired." Later, it came back to him that Singleton had taken to bragging about the mavericks at The Eagle. "It became a selling point for him."
- On endorsements in general: "They tell people about the newspaper and that the head, heart and soul are in the right place."
- Where, on the political spectrum, do the paper's editorial pages stand? "We're actually fairly moderate. We're not Kool-Aid drinkers. This is not `Pravda on the Housatonic' (a phrase once applied to the paper). "I don't know what wit came up with that, but we were pretty entertained."
- How to write opinion, whether it's a letter, column or editorial: Have an opinion. Bring evidence. Acknowledge opposing views. Be clear.
- Pittsfield's progress in evolving from a General Electric company town: Change is good. "Our independence (as an economy) is a strength and a weakness. We're resistant to new people. And we need new ideas and new people." Hoping for an economic savior, he believes, held the city back for a long time. "I understood that defeatist attitude. I think it's finally gone."
- On the rising clamor of an "assertion culture," particularly involving social media: "Let's at least agree on the facts — and here are the facts."
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.
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