I can’t tell you how many times I’ve avoided putting Jim Wright on the front page of this newspaper over the years. I’ve probably cropped him out of a dozen photographs as he lurked in the background shot of a fire scene, murder trial or government meeting. Jim was the “enemy,” after all, working for the Press & Sun-Bulletin, our chief competitors down in Binghamton.
But on Wednesday, I put his picture on the front page with singular purpose. Above the fold. Jim’s untimely death struck a chord in all his journalistic brethren, but his life as a ubiquitous icon of Chenango life merited front page treatment – even from a rival newspaper. In an instant, he was no longer the competition, but a great reporter, community volunteer, colleague and friend.
I first met Jim when I was a wee cub reporter for The Evening Sun back in 1990. Like many reporters before and since, Jim taught me the ropes of local reporting – even if he didn’t mean to directly. Our newspaper’s training program has long been of the trial by fire variety – a few coarse words of warning from the editor, and out into the great unknown you go. That’s where I, and many of my reporters who followed, found a friend in Jim Wright. Yes, he worked for the “evil empire.” Yes, he frequently had his nose in the news long before we did. But Jim was never aloof or proprietary when it came to dealing with newbie reporters from another newspaper. Instead, he’d readily share the who’s who of a news scene, even layering in some choice background information if he felt like it – saving, of course, the juiciest details for his own story. He was cooperative and amiable with his colleagues, but never stupid.
I remember watching Jim interact with his sources – the very ones I was trying to endear myself to – and thinking that I’d give anything to be that entrenched in the local scheme of things, to be that in the know. A little shy of two decades later, I’m still not sure I’m anywhere near as “plugged in” as Jim Wright was. I don’t think anyone ever will be.
As affable as Jim could be, he didn’t shy away from taking his pot shots at me, or my newspaper, of course. As I absorbed the news of his death Tuesday, I vividly remembered a small plane crashing deep in the woods off Maltzan Road in Sherburne in the fall of ‘90. I’d barely been on the job a month, and this was my first major disaster. Fairly clueless on how to deal with breaking news of this magnitude, I got to the scene and did what countless other cubbies did – I followed Jim Wright. Literally. We traipsed through the woods for over a mile to reach the wreckage, even as the emergency crews were still trying to get to the scene. New to the job (and naive as to how far this would get me), I was still “dressing to impress” the higher-ups at The Evening Sun. Jim and I trekked through the mushy woods, he casually dressed (no one ever accused him of being a fashion plate) and me in a so-90s light blue suit. Teal, even, if I’m being honest. Hurrying to the scene, we barely said a word. We both took pictures of the downed plane (a two-seater, as I recall, and no one seriously injured) and set out to nab the sheriff’s deputy who was on the scene to answer a few questions. Jim asked his, I asked mine. The deputy asked us to withhold the name of one of the passengers for a reason I forget, but a good one. Jim agreed on his part, and pointed to me – “but you’d better ask Don Johnson here.”
Jim’s passing also made me think of one of my own – the late Kathy O’Hara. While she served the Fourth Estate for a fraction of the time Jim did, they were still contemporaries – fast friends and rivals. When Jim arrived at the Pearly Gates with notebook in hand, I have no doubt Kathy was there to give him the latest scoop.