By Jasmine Wu, Bulletin Staff
‘Stu Neilson is in town crier garb and holding up a copy of the Town Crier newspaper as he waits at an airport in 1999 to greet Michael David Kean-Price, the actual town crier of Tewkesbury, England.’
To say that Stu Neilson retired in April solely as managing editor of the Wilmington/ Tewksbury (Mass.) Town Crier would be an understatement.
Neilson found himself filling almost every role at the weekly newspaper, with a circulation of about 6,000, for the past 50 years, after his father founded the Town Crier in 1955.
“I was the editor, photographer, janitor. I’d fix the roofs, sweep the floors and do everything,” said Neilson, who retired from the Town Crier but will work from home in Wilmington for ACN Marketing, based in Concord, N.C.
He recalled a time when his loyalty to the Town Crier was uncertain. For financial reasons, his father had decided in 1974 that someone at the newspaper needed to be laid off.
“I said, ‘Fine, I’m the one,’ and threw my keys on the counter and stormed out the door and moved to New Mexico,” said Neilson, who is now not able to recall the nature of the conflict with his father. “It was a terrible mistake.”
After a brief stint working at a hardware store, Neilson, then 27 years old, returned to the Town Crier after remembering what he loved about journalism.
“(It’s) the variety of the work,” Neilson said. “There’s something different every 10 minutes … and it just keeps on changing.”
Neilson said bringing changes to the Town Crier was one of his biggest accomplishments.
Although the Town Crier had been using phototypesetting, a technique that requires painstaking hours of cutting and pasting copy onto a layout board, Neilson foresaw the popularity of laser writers and brought Apple Macintosh computers into the newsroom. The Macs could communicate with the printer, which would then enable printing on less expensive paper than phototypesetting required, he said.
“We were the first newspaper in the world to completely shut off all phototypesetting and go exclusively with Macintosh and laser writers,” Neilson said.
The Town Crier was written about in national and international publications, including Time Magazine, for making that conversion, he said.
“I saw it coming down the pike and said, ‘I’m doing that.’ I had people coming in from all over the world to interview me,” Neilson said.
The feat was impressive for a newspaper the size of the Town Crier, but working for a small newspaper allows for a lot more autonomy, Neilson said.
“You get to do what you think is right as opposed to taking orders from someone else,” he said. “On the split side of that, you’ve got responsibility.”
For example, Neilson frequently had to report and write, even though he didn’t really enjoy it.
“I would only do that when it had to be done, but photography is a lot more fun than any of it,” he said.
Even though he likes taking photographs, Neilson learned one day while shooting a football game that it isn’t always pain-free.
“It was a Thanksgiving game … and I was concentrating, not really watching the play, and (the players) ran over me and I ended up crawling off the field,” Neilson said.
“Afterward, when my sports editor was going over the game films, they got to that part and backed it up and played it over again and again,” he said with a laugh.
Another of Neilson’s most memorable assignments occurred on a slow Friday afternoon when he followed a fire truck parked on one side of the railroad tracks that was putting out a fire on the other side. The train station had been called to shut down the trains but mistook the instructions for another set of tracks.
“The train comes around the corner at 60 miles per hour,” Neilson said. “I kept the motor drive running, taking three frames a second, and I ran over to the truck … (The train) sucks one of the hoses up and it swings it around. It was quite dramatic. The train went by two or three feet away from me.”
The photograph, of a train running through the spewing water of the hose as the hose whips around and lifts the hat off a fireman’s head, won Neilson recognition as photographer of the year from the Massachusetts Press Association.
Sometimes at a small newspaper, your best assignments come from “dropping everything you’re doing, with your camera in hand, chasing the fire engines down the street,” Neilson said.
‘Stu Neilson prepares to eat at the Town Crier’s office Christmas party in 1983.’
‘It was a Thanksgiving game … and I was concentrating, not really watching the play, and (the players) ran over me and I ended up crawling off the field. Afterward, when my sports editor was going over the game films, they got to that part and backed it up and played it over again and again.’