In theory I could tally how many times Chris Collins’ byline has been published in the Baker City Herald.
But this task, alas, will have to remain theoretical.
I just can’t devote myself to a single task for the next month or so, what with newspapers to assemble, hikes to take and limbs to gather in my yard after the latest spring norther whips through our willows, which shed worse than the shaggiest terrier.
I expect that even if I had no other commitments, it would be the heavy work of multiple weeks to compile anything approaching a complete record of Chris’ contributions to this newspaper over the past four decades.
Adjectives flood my thoughts at the prospect.
But as I contemplate Chris’ career at the Herald, which ends this week with her retirement, another description, this one requiring two words, floats to the surface of that mental flood.
This phrase, I think, defines Chris’ tenure more even than its longevity and consistency, though both of those are substantial.
The quality of her work, besides benefiting multiple generations of Herald readers, also inspired her colleagues.
I remember nothing about my first day in the Herald’s newsroom. This bothers me in no small measure, and never mind that it happened almost 30 years ago.
But I do recall, and with considerable gratitude, how comforting it was to work with a reporter as experienced and competent as Chris was, and is.
I feel the same, three decades later.
This is the second time in the past year I have marked such an occasion. I feel sad now as I did then. Just about a year ago I bid farewell to Chris’ husband, S. John Collins, whose photographs had graced the Herald’s pages since 1978. His job was among those lost to the pandemic.
I have adjusted to John’s absence, though the void he left remains. I suppose I will do the same in the wake of Chris’ retirement.
But when the issue bearing the last of her many thousands of bylines has come and gone, a new gap will appear, a new loss in the Herald’s journalistic tradition, which dates back 151 years.
Chris was an integral part of the paper for a quarter of that period.
This is a legacy, a record of recording the events and the people that define this place, that simply can’t be replaced.
By comparison, counting Chris’ bylines would be a simple, if time-consuming, exercise.
— — —
Beverly Cleary created the first literary characters I could actually imagine riding past my house on their bicycles.
Or seeing at the library.
Or playing dodgeball with on the school playground.
(A game, at least in my experience, most often played outdoors, and on courts of crumbling asphalt. When you fell — and you did, or at least I did — any exposed skin became encrusted with shards of blacktop. If you were fortunate you could pluck off most of these without pulling away bits of skin in the process.)
Cleary, who lived in Portland as a child and used the city as the setting for her beloved series of books, died last month. She was 104, which seems to me an accumulation of years wholly appropriate for so prolific an author.
Cleary’s best-known characters, sisters Beezus and Ramona Quimby, their neighbor Henry Huggins, and of course Henry’s dog, Ribsy, weren’t alone in the worlds, fictional and historical, that I inhabited in my earliest days as a reader.
(I was born in 1970 and could no more have missed Cleary’s books than I could have avoided Casey Kasem’s Top 40 countdown, disco, Shrinky Dinks and the Atari 2600, among much else that defined the pop culture of my childhood.)
I suspect I spent more time immersed in the exploits of Frank and Joe Hardy, and following the itinerant Ingalls family.
But as much as I relished those series, the pictures those books painted in my mind weren’t quite so vivid as those that Cleary created with her prose.
The Hardy boys were teenagers, for one thing, and I was six or so when I first made their acquaintance.
They drove cars.
They piloted speedboats.
They even flew airplanes.
I had a bicycle.
I didn’t have a fingerprinting kit or a photo lab. I didn’t know the police chief and I didn’t get mixed up with robbers, conmen and a variety of other unpleasant thugs.
I could while away most of a day care-ening from one predicament to the next with the Hardys and their chums, such as Chet Morton, Tony Prito and the inimitable Biff Hooper.
But I couldn’t envision actually knowing any of them, they were so different from my friends, their exploits so much more dramatic and eventful than my small town, middle class childhood.
The Ingalls family, though having a theoretical advantage over the Hardys — they were real people — were also, as denizens of the 19th century, people whose experiences had little relevance to a boy born in the last third of the 20th.
Theirs was a world without electricity and automobiles, to cite the technologies that best exemplify the gulf between that era and ours.
(Also, I feel compelled to note, a world in which human eliminatory functions were utterly ignored. Laura Ingalls Wilder, though in every other respect a writer with a keen memory for detail — her description of her Pa fashioning a log cabin door takes up several pages — never, so far as I recall, so much as hinted at the existence of outhouses much less their construction or function.)
But the Quimbys and the other kids who lived on Klickitat Street were recognizable to me from the first chapter.
Indeed, when I rode my bike on the endless and seemingly never boring circuits of my own street — North Fern Avenue — it seemed to me a place not greatly different from the one I read about in Cleary’s books. The only notable exception is that Beezus, Ramona and Henry lived in Portland, Oregon’s biggest city by far, while I lived in Stayton, which in those days had little more than 4,000 residents. But Cleary’s books are about neighborhoods, not cities, and almost all of her descriptions, of sidewalks and fences and yards and schools, were immediately comforting to me in their familiarity.
Today’s young readers perhaps are confused on occasion by Cleary’s books. I can imagine a kid wondering why Beezus didn’t just use her cellphone to call her parents when Ramona scraped her knee, why Henry didn’t think to resort to Google when confronted with a particularly vexing homework assignment.
But for all that I believe Cleary’s characters are timeless, their lives as compelling, as the 21st century continues its inexorable and somehow terrible advance, as they were in the 20th.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.