May 1, 2017

By Arthur H. Gunther III

I needed a large circular template for a painting, and since neccesity is the mother of invention, I glanced across the basement and saw an old 33 rpm vinyl record, and the roughly 12-inch disc did the trick. It was a bit of irony that the record had been shelved into a dusty pile by the iPad music app I listen to at high volume when I work.
There is great convenience in using the music app since I quickly hear tunes from Buddy Holly to Johnny Cash to Glenn Miller to the Beatles, etc., but as I put the old Johnny Mathis record back into its sleeve, I felt a tinge of guilt that the voice impressed in the vinyl had long ago been silenced. Not Mathis, just the recorded version I have.
I also realized that 100 years ago, when wind-up Victrolas were playing scratchy 78 rpm records made of shellac resin, listeners would have been overjoyed to have almost unbreakable, longer-playing 33 rpm vinyl that, if cared for, offered few scratchy sounds.
Yet even that would be relative since just a few years before 1917, parlors had Edison music players with tunes recorded on even scratchier cylinders. Before that, there were player pianos with music notes delivered by perforated paper or metallic rolls. Before that, whoever was playing an instrument. And in between the iPad and the 33 rpm record were tapes and various cassettes.
Such has been the progress that guarantees we can always hear the music.
Still, as noted, a wisp of nostalgia that in the ever-faster pace of our time, the iPad app just pops on while not long ago, we carefully pulled a vinyl record out of its jacket, blew off the dust, gently placed it on the console record player and sat down to listen.
Almost more civilized.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

Rescuing the suburbs

By Arthur H. Gunther III

I live in Rockland County, N.Y., a semi-rural land when I was young but now a New York City suburb that is graying with older housing stock, demands for more urban-like density, rising infrastructure costs and other threats to the quality of life. It is the typical U.S. suburb, sometimes a worrisome place with a future uncertain in an economy that may never again see a vibrant middle class. The middle class thirsted for the burbs, kept it going but today cannot afford it. Suggestions follow for Rockland as it faces the years ahead; perhaps they are applicable elsewhere.

Rockland municipalities must act now on joint planning issues if taxes, diversity and quality of life are to be best managed in the fast graying of suburbia. Some of the county’s post-World War II housing is among the nation’s oldest, and there should be common thought as to how to keep development stable as well as to renew it.

Towns and villages should come together, with the county leading, to devise shared standards for future growth and regrowth. What happens in one town or village affects the others, especially in infrastructure such as water supply and sewers, density, drainage, traffic and the county tax load.

Rockland’s cost of living is well above the national average, and its budget, which zoomed from about $489 million in 2001 to $674 million in 2017, is not sustainable. Those costs are directly attributable to population changes, including aging out and poorly planned density growth, as well as unfunded state mandates that should be protested jointly by all municipalities.

Economic and quality-of-life pressures will continue to push residents from the county, some taking with them a sense of history and dedicated community involvement that may not necessarily be replaced. The worry is that we will urbanize in anonymity, with 60-70-year-old housing not renewed, with some areas grossly neglected as the cost of home ownership rises.

Municipalities must prepare now to obtain the best outlook. Towns and villages, with the county in the lead, should form the “Rockland Outlook Consortium” to:

* Set common zoning standards for housing density, recognizing that much of the county developed after World War II has 1/3-acre or 1/4-acre housing plots with 1,600-1,800 square-foot homes. Redevelopment at greater density will invite a population increase that cannot be afforded by municipalities and school districts. The architecture will also overwhelm and green space will dwindle. There must be a planning balance if suburbia is to survive and redevelop with quality of living.
* Require sufficient drainage ponds and storm sewering with a look at what happens downstream. For example, irresponsible growth in Ramapo along the Pascack Brook affects homes in Orangetown, even in New Jersey. Residents elsewhere should not suffer flooding and remediation costs because Ramapo has licensed overgrowth. There must be a better look at the effect of development or regrowth in one municipality versus the quality of life in other communities.
* Seek balance in growth/regrowth. From its beginning, Rockland has been diverse, and that enriches our lives and our history. There must be housing for all incomes, but much better planned and in a mix. We must guard against decaying neighborhoods, leaning on unscrupulous landlords who take single-family homes and illegally convert them to boarding houses.
* Work with the Rockland fire coordinator and volunteer fire departments to require landlord-paid, six-month re-inspections of all multi-tenant housing for housing and fire code violations. Building inspectors must be much more pro-active, and the courts must jail repeat slumlords. Property appearance codes must be better written and enforced.
* Discourage suburban shopping, rezoning areas to prevent such  development. Instead, we must renew village downtowns and hamlet centers, with sufficient parking and walkable areas. Existing strip-shopping owners should be made to clean up their acts, with litter, poor paving and neglected storefronts rehabilitated.
* School districts should work even more fervently to support one another so that we do not have the imbalance that now exists — East Ramapo students without enough teachers and courses while just next door the Clarkstown School District offers relative educational riches. We should all be ashamed of such inequity in Rockland. Albany aid formulas, income-based school taxation and mandate relief must be the continuing agenda, and the better-off Rockland districts must help their brothers in the fight.
Rockland County will continue into this century, but with what future? Are we to face unsupportable deficits? Stressed schools and disenfranchised children? Run-down, unsafe housing? An imbalance of housing density that favors some and shuts out others? Perhaps a “Rockland Outlook Consortium” that agrees on common planning standards and even shames wayward municipalities can begin to steer our troubled ship off the rocks.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who lives in Blauvelt, N.Y. Contact him at


April 16, 2017

By Arthur H. Gunther III
When my son Arthur IV bought his small Upper Nyack, N.Y.,  house from Leroy Buckout, the owner explained that he long ago had adopted a way to deal with the lack of closets, not uncommon in a 1929 home. “When I buy a shirt, I get rid of another,” he suggested.
I figure old Norman Baker did the same thing. He was the longtime editor of the original Journal-News in Rockland County, N.Y., and his work shirt never varied. It was white, or the off-white that many washings bring, and Norm always had the sleeves rolled to just above the elbow.
That was at first practical, since newspapering in his 1920s into the later 1960s included daily time in hot-metal composing rooms filled with lead type, high heat and some grime.
But there was another reason. Norm did not wear short-sleeve shirts. Maybe he didn’t have closet room. Perhaps he didn’t like them. Or — and this is my best guess — the editor was a practical man, and he figured a long-sleeve dress shirt became seasonal when you rolled the sleeves.
Norm also used copy editing pencils to the limit, writing headlines with some that were three-inches short. He penciled those “heds” on half sheets of copy paper that the printers cut from left-over newsprint.
And as you would guess, the editor’s cigarettes were smoked to the stubs. (In my old Hudson Avenue, Nyack, office, maybe three of us, out of 50, did not smoke. The way individuals held their cigs, lit them, inhaled, stubbed them out offered study in habit, almost an encyclopedic entry.)
Norm Baker also didn’t say much. His sort of teaching was by example. A copy boy could watch and learn. For me anyway, it was the best lesson.
Maybe that is why, decades later, I still recall Norm, my hiring boss, in his white shirt, sleeves rolled.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.


April 10, 2017

By Arthur H. Gunther III

Some time ago, at a table of friends and family through marriage, the talk was of newspapers — media in general, actually — and how you “can’t believe what you read, what you hear, maybe even what you see.” One person in particular, a good man who has shared and enhanced important moments, was the most vocal, practically considering the messenger an enemy. I kept quiet — as a newspaperman I was used to disdain, some of it deserved. The relative seemed not to care that I was in the fraternity, almost as if he were excusing me. “Oh, not you, Art,” he was saying by not saying it, by the absence of directed comment.
Retired now, the unspoken oath that includes “who, what, where, when, why and how” is not forgotten though the daily deadline clock no longer ticks. I am always looking for a story, a photograph, something to comment on, if only to myself. In this era of so-called “fake news,” I wish there were a gig, just to emphasize that while bias and deliberate editorializing and misinformation have always been there, so has the real deal, the guy or gal with a nose for news gathered in competence and delivered straight up. Those people quench our thirst for information.
News-gathering is full of characters, mostly suspicious, rejecting authority, irreverent. They can be unlikable, even irritating until you understand that it takes someone out of the regular rhythm of life to describe life, to show the warts, the horror but also the beauty. Especially life that can become jingoistic, pushed by the slogans of those with an agenda, who promise the moon to folk who will in the end receive hypocrisy.
If you must, hate the journalist, the commentator, the one who delivers information you do not want to hear. Distrust all messengers, yes. Digest news with a grain of salt, yes. Those are requirements of the educated reader, listener, viewer, because even the most balanced, neutral media toiler gets things wrong and can be influenced by bias.
But also pray for the information gatherers. The best of these save the world by spotlighting greed, inhumanity and evil and also restore faith while reporting on individual heroism and goodness.
Fake news is weed. It’s always been invasive. But then there is the hardy crop that feeds humanity. Water it.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.


April 3, 2017

By Arthur H. Gunther III

In Nyack, N.Y., just a few hundred yards from the great historic river named the Hudson, the shores of which will soon be joined by two new bridges to replace one just 62 years old, stands a small barn so classic in shape and so reminiscent of who and what built the nation that it makes you purr, the world’s troubles be damned.
Those new spans across the river named for Hendrik, an explorer without GPS who by default continued New World exploration and so helped fuel the endless frontier that was once America, should not be necessary. The Brooklyn Bridge, just miles south on the East River takeoff, was earnestly erected in 1883 and remains in heavy use — people, vehicles, trains. The 1955 Tappan Zee Bridge is falling down, and millions have been spent each year to prop it up.
The crossing will be allowed to collapse later this year when the first new span opens to the exaggeration of politicoes and much fanfare, just like in 1955. But no one will speak of the first and poorly built structure and why it has withered while great-great-grandpa still stands talk with no evident arthritis.
And so, back to the Nyack barn, old school, too, maybe 1883 as well. Surely not 1955.
It stands, still.
The first Tappan Zee Bridge cost $81 million, or about $800 million today. The Brooklyn Bridge — $15.5 million in 1883, $386 million in 2017. The TZB replacements? An estimated $3.9 billion. Yes, “billion.” And that does not include inevitable renovation and widening of the Rockland County Thruway lanes, now a bottleneck that will not see relief with two wider crossings.
The barn? Not sure what it cost back when. Probably a few hundred dollars in locally harvested and milled pine plus the labor of willing neighbors in a picnic raising.
Like I said, the barn makes me purr. Not sure about the new bridges at Nyack. Or the old one.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.


March 27, 2017

By Arthur H. Gunther III

When we come across the Jacob Riis photographs of late-1800’s lower New York City poverty, in his book “How the Other Half Lives,” most of us feel sad yet grateful for our family’s escape, if forebears had lived, say, in Irish Five Points, as some of mine did. Those terrible tenement conditions, the utter poverty, alcoholism, crime, domestic abuse, official disdain and abandonment are difficult to take. But then,
we flip the history book shut and conveniently say to ourselves, “Well, that was a long time ago.”
Forgotten, those troubles, until you come to 2017 and the great eye-opening that social media provides, despite half-baked “news” and the ego-pushing of self-aggrandizement.
Last week, I happened upon a post by Briton Ella Murtha, who posted emotionally searing photographs of poverty-stricken areas of Newcastle, in the north of England, during the controversial Margaret Thatcher years of the early 1980s.
The images, brilliantly captured by her mother Tish, are as heart-rending as those taken by Riis about 100 years before.
(The personal irony for me was that some of my family lived in Hartlepool, near Newcastle, before they moved to other poverty at Five Points in Old New York.)
When Jacob Riis documented dismissed humanity so long ago, the hope was that society would pay attention. That has happened to a degree in the United States, but only in spurts. Appalachian poverty continues, many decades after President Lyndon Johnson visited in 1964 in his “War on Poverty.” The rural South, inner-cities, old farm areas and even parts of promising suburbs remain in decay, with worsening expected as the middle class declines and the government of the people, by the people, for the people once again hardens its heart.
In the Thatcher England of the 1980s, the prime minister’s “Free Market Philosophy” was supposed to trickle down opportunity to the masses so they could pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but as with Reaganomics in the U.S., greed intercepted the pass. Now, at home, President Trump may deflate the ball entirely.
Just as Riis spotlighted failure in humanity, the late Tish Murtha told Parliament in a 1981 address, “Hidden in a smokescreen of cynical double-talk and pious moralising, the shape of the future is nevertheless clearly discernable. Cuts in social spending, including unemployment benefits, mean that the conditions under which they must endure their enforced idleness will rapidly deteriorate to become an intolerable burden, the consequences of which will be enormous. Society
has withdrawn its contract from these young people, can they now be expected to live by its rules?”

In her Facebook post, Tish’s daughter Ella added, “My mam was extremely sensitive to people and their emotions and really, really cared. That is what I see when I look at her work, and that is what I hope people see and feel when they look at them. They are incredibly powerful and evocative, and I hope that the images remain with people long after they have looked at them. Even the least empathic person must be able to see the truth in them.”
Here is Ella Murtha’s link to another episode in, yes, “dismissed humanity”:

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via This essay may be reproduced.



March 20, 2017

By Arthur Henry Gunther III

One of the benefits of social media (and there are significant downsides) is that much information is presented, all of it requiring prudent review. But so deep are the vaults that many looksees are self-educating, even the “fake news.”
Included in the social media explosion is Pinterest, an image-sharing site that links you to information about photos or paintings or drawings. In turn, that brings you to other images and more info. You can go down many streets and then turn to alleys and to more paths. It can be fascinating and enlightening.
It can also be a history lesson, and in that, an eraser for prejudice like the sort that is being re-enabled in the “Whom do you hate today?” rhetoric from some D.C. officials who need their own educating.
Scanning through Pinterest, I came across many photographs of immigrants at Castle Garden in New York City, but also paintings done on site in this pre-Ellis Island
arrival center. One piece, a 1884 painting by Charles Frederic Ulrich, stood out.
“In the Land of Promise” is remarkable. Eight million people passed through Castle Garden between 1855 and 1890, including my Irish and Prussian forebears, and Ulrich’s art clearly demonstrates the exhaustion of a long and perilous sea journey but also the hope upon arrival. There is no greater evidence of that than a mother nursing her baby. What opportunity she passes to the child, in the sustenance of her milk and in the determination that the infant succeed in this new land.
There are various faces from different lands in this nearly 131-year-old painting, probably not a terrorist among them though surely some ne’r-do-wells, just like in the general U.S population. There are also sick people, as diseases were common in the crowded, noisy conditions of Castle Garden, as in New York City itself.
This painting is America itself. How many such people built the society we have today? How many died in America’s wars? How many invented things and saved lives? How many married our ancestors? How many are woven into our national fabric? How many are related to officials today who have turned their backs on their heritage?
John Lyons, my English grandfather, a merchant seaman from England’s north,
saw promise here and so, in difficult times in his native land, took refuge, contributed to a degree and caused no trouble. He was also illegal to his passing, which was not right. But he was no terrorist, no criminal of any sort, just slow on the paperwork.
I shudder to think what his fate would be today. Or my own. Or that of any of the people in Charles Ulrich’s magnificent “American” painting.
We are better people than this.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via


March 13, 2017

By Arthur Henry Gunther III

My week just past had two “JR” moments, and the thought of that had me smiling. In a time when simplicity and common sense, just the basic black and white of things, seem to be obscured by grayness, slowness and complexity, the get-it-done, no-big deal method was refreshing.

First, I was called to United Church in my old hometown of Spring Valley, N.Y., which fit the “JR” angle, as I will explain. The church hosts a food program ongoing since 1985, and these days, as well as being the Tuesday cook, I am also the handyman.
The call was for the ice-maker, indispensable if you serve up to 100 or so souls each weekday. “No ice,” said the caller. So I drove the five miles from Blauvelt, in comparison to the one mile It took to walk to a Boy Scout program in the same church when I was a boy. Same look, same feeling, this 1865 structure decades apart.
I was at the ice maker for just 15 seconds when I saw that the electrical circuit was shut off. Perhaps that happened as a protective measure since water and electricity do not mix.
Anyway, a quick reset, and the machine began freezing water for ice cubes. A “JR” moment, and steps away from the inspiration, as I will tell you.
Later last week, I got another telephone call, this time from the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, home of the famed American realist painter. “No lights,” said the caller. This time I immediately surmised a “JR” moment since the art center just had its floors refinished, and the crew probably tripped circuit breakers using their high-powered equipment.
Sure enough, there were switches to be reset. The staff had tried that but were fooled because the electrical installer had placed the breakers upside down, and “on” seemed to be “off”. Another “JR” moment.
Now, what is this all about. What is “JR”?
Well, “who” is the accurate question. JR, John Romaine, was a radio and TV shop co-owner and repairman, with his store, “Ro-Field Appliances,” located just across the way from United Church.
He would often get calls, first at the Main Street shop and then at his Hillcrest home, from customers who swore that they were watching TV, and the set “just stopped working.” Mr. Romaine would tell the client that he would be right over, and soon he would be heading off in his light green Ford station wagon. A few minutes later, he would replug the TV, and the mystified customer would either feel silly or suddenly remember that the spouse was vacuuming and pulled out the power cord. A “JR” moment.

What made the homeowner’s day was that John Romaine never charged for such a call. It didn’t seem right to do so, and that simple, uncomplicated, common-sense act made an impression. Just get the job done — no fuss, no theater, no drama, no big deal, no charge.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via



March 6, 2017

By Arthur H. Gunther III

I wrote “The Column Rule” as a weekly– at times semi-weekly — newspaper essay for 25 years, principally because I had the opportunity, and there was never a dearth of subjects in my countryfied suburb of Rockland County, N.Y. The column had readership, touched some people, informed others and otherwise justified the use of daily newspaper space. The editors would have spiked it if it didn’t do the job.
Yet “The Column Rule” wasn’t exceptional, did not win vaulted awards, and true be told, there were better writers.
But I had the perch, and I tried to deliver a piece of nostalgia or insight or thanks in a way that was conversational, as if you were in a car with me on an evening ride and I later wrote of not just my thoughts but yours, too. Sometimes I can finish another’s sentence, but that’s just my equipment. You have yours.
It was a privilege penning essays in the original Journal-News, and it was humbling to be among their columnists from 1850 through the paper’s absorption in 1997 by a Westchester County-based big newspaper chain subsidiary.
True community newspapering depends on voices, be they eloquent, rough-hewn, brash or with delivery in silk. Informative and fact-based the voices must be to keep away the cancer of fake news. And the media voices must not only include staff columns and editorials — the paper’s voice — but letters, the people’s voice.
I write all this now because not only does it seem topical post-2016 but as a way of thanking the various Journal-News editors and loyal readers back then.
Since my “early” retirement in 2006, I have continued writing a weekly essay online, simply because I am driven to do so. It is an indulgence that I hope does not prove me ego-centered or boorish. After all,
as always, the reader can ignore. I will always stop the car and let you out.
The audience is far less these days, but I pray that I still have a few folk taking that car ride with me, for however more miles there may be. Thank you for the company.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via


By Arthur H. Gunther III

There was a moment when the day was better spent riding on roads through state parks or hiking trails than focusing on the timepiece that ticks away your life. Call it education.

Not all learning happens in school, though you feel guilty if responsibility nevertheless calls for hitting the books at a specified time and you are not participating. It can be confusing. When your peers are doing it according to Hoyle, you seem the time-waster.
Yet the search for creativity, for the you in yourself, must also fling you down paths that include the potholes of criticism, even shouts of irresponsibility. It’s best to keep stepping ahead, to stay the course.
As long as you are not lying on the couch, numbed by a TV soap, as long as you are soaking up what will become the tools of your trade, you are giving yourself an education.
The late famed educator Jesse Stuart, a product of Appalachia, though he obtained a traditional college degree, absorbed most of his understanding of people, particularly children, by teaching at rural schoolhouses, often walking miles to his job.
Stuart understood Kentucky, poor people, tough times, especially during the Great Depression, and what makes the individual great in this troubled and imperfect world. He was a booster of individual spirit and the can-do nature inherent in everyone.
He knew the path to education begins with footsteps in your unique environment. A famous line of his is “A farmer singing at the plow,” part of a sonnet written as Stuart was with the soil.
This once poet laureate of Kentucky listened to his muse. Whether the path is traditional or begins with a hike in the woods, schooling happens.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via