Gerry Francis, former Berkshire Courier editor, remembered

In a letter to the editor, James Harris writes, "So I remember Gerry Francis as my first boss, a man who taught me the value and the necessity of hard work."

To the editor:

Your story of the Berkshire Record’s demise made a passing reference to its more prestigious predecessor in Great Barrington, the Berkshire Courier, but made no mention of the Courier’s longtime editor, Gerry Francis, who died two years ago this November. And he was a newspaperman man who should be remembered along with the weekly he ran.

The late Gerry Francis, longtime editor of the Berkshire Courier

Gerry was a so-so day student at Berkshire School, ranking 34th in a class of 43. He thought about a career in the military and, to that end, he went to Norwich University, then changed his mind after a year and transferred to Upsala College. But he couldn’t finish school because, like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Gerry had to return home when his father died to take over his dad’s business. In 1964, Gerry, then 22, became owner, publisher and editor of the Berkshire Courier, then one of America’s oldest weekly newspapers.

It must have been tough for him at first; it always is when the owner’s kid takes over. In those days, the Courier was the quintessential small-town weekly. There was Gerry and another reporter, an ad salesman, a layout person and a receptionist. Downstairs in the basement, a crew ran a huge offset printing press. They were two salty, irreverent souls, veterans of the trade who couldn’t have taken instructions from a college kid too easily. But by the time Gerry hired me as a reporter in 1974, Gerry had their respect, and seemed to know everyone in Great Barrington. A few doors down Main Street was the South County office of the enemy, The Berkshire Eagle, an afternoon daily which, that very year, had won a Pulitzer Prize.

And so that was my first directive my first day on the job: Scoop the Eagle. Then he threw in another job requirement: I would have to sell advertising as well as report and take pictures.

Sell advertising? I was fresh out of college with degree in journalism, where I’d learned that one of the first principals of the trade was that the editorial and the business sides of things must be kept separate. But Jerry had been writing stories and selling ads for years. That’s what a weekly newspaper editor did. And he didn’t see why reporters couldn’t do it, too.

And so along with covering the selectmen and the school committee and countless other boards and high school sports and the occasional summer-stock review, I had to sell advertising. On my third visit to the Ford agency in Lee, the owner saw me coming, opened the door and shouted, “No!” One boutique owner in Stockbridge banged on her cash register, tore off the receipt showing the day’s sales and stuck it in my hand. “How can I afford to advertise with you?” she pleaded.

So at first I dreaded the cold call, but soon began to take as much pride in my salesmanship as in my reporting and, I must admit, the two jobs never conflicted. And when we did beat the Eagle on a big story, life was sweet. Once, the entire police department of West Stockbridge resigned en masse. We had the story and hoped the Eagle didn’t. The Eagle came out about 3 in the afternoon and when the story wasn’t there, Gerry led the cheers in the pressroom and the beer flowed at the presses as our issue came off the press an hour later. Not only did we scoop the Eagle, but the then-mighty New York Daily News used the Courier as the source of its own story two days later.

So I remember Gerry Francis as my first boss, a man who taught me the value and the necessity of hard work. He wasn’t a titan of industry or finance, and he was more country than city. But he knew his neighbors and he made a real difference in his community. May that be said of all of us.

James Harris
Great Barrington