I have no claim to greatness, I realize that. And in this world of 100,000 YouTube channels, it’s harder than ever to lay claim to greatness. The closest you’re likely to come is to meet someone great, and you hope somehow that some residue of that greatness rubs off on you. You might even fantasize that maybe, somehow, it made a difference for that great person that they met you. I shook Jimmy Carter’s hand once, during his first presidential campaign, and then he won. Coincidence? I bumped into the newsman Peter Jennings, literally, in a hotel lobby. Then he died. Coincidence, absolutely. But at least I bumped into Peter Jennings. The movie star Ginger Rogers handwrote me a letter. I display it in a frame in my office. Brushes with greatness.
This week we observe the one-year anniversary of the passing of the great man, the longtime Ipswich Chronicle owner Bill Wasserman. I confess, when I first crossed his path, I didn’t recognize his greatness; I was too new to Ipswich to know he was already legendary. Sitting in the front row at Town Meeting, I was drawing lame cartoons of the various speakers. Over the course of a few Town Meetings, Bill came to the citizens’ mic and spoke his mind, and I scribbled. I just thought he was an ordinary mortal — articulate, insightful, clever, but let’s face it, also elderly, a bit bent over, curly white hair gone a little wild. I auto-sorted him into a stereotype and thought nothing of it.
Today, every time the Ipswich Local News arrives in your mail (and you can’t stop it even if you want to because it comes to you via a nonprofit postal permit), you have, in large measure, Bill Wasserman to thank. Even more importantly, and to be serious for a moment, you have Wasserman to thank that there’s a newspaper at all. Certainly a string of editors, reporters, advertisers, and others served as building blocks over the years; but Wasserman was a cornerstone. He shepherded the Chronicle operation for years; and then, as that paper faded, he came alongside John Muldoon to launch the Ipswich Local News. Wasserman in his 90’s was out there on the pavement, hawking ads for the fledgling weekly. Some may have had the temerity to snicker, but it was only a coverup for the awe we had to feel. We were witnessing a kind of greatness. Wasserman supported and promoted the new paper, and look: it succeeded. Coincidence?
He complained from time to time about the “Outsidah.” He didn’t like my frequent mentions of area businesses if they weren’t paying for advertising. I imagine if I wrote my columns further in advance, I could have given Bill notice of any businesses I would be naming, and then he could drop in on them in a trenchcoat and a fedora and muscle them for some advertising dollars. But there was no such lead-time in my calendar, so countless local businesses were spared the Wasserman strong-arm, and they have my procrastination to thank for that.
Even when he was annoyed, however, Bill was unfailingly gracious. Early in my time of working with him on the paper, in a long string of emails between the great man and editor Muldoon and me, I somehow lost track of Wasserman’s first name and referred to him as “Ed.” Wasserman didn’t get angry; he got even. He responded simply by proceeding to call me “Alan.”
In a week or two, I’ll have the joy of delivering my 400th “Outsidah” column. I have served multiple editors. But Bill Wasserman cast a unique shadow. Too late, I came to realize that the bent, curly-headed shape was the shape of greatness. Too soon, he was gone. I don’t care if he was 94. It was too soon for me. Alan needed more time with Ed.
Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, where the ghost of Bill Wasserman occasionally drops in to offer advice. Follow Doug at DougBrendel.com.