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The late Pete Lisagor, Washington Bureau chief for the Chicago Daily News and national political reporter, once described his and his colleagues’ job this way: “We walk down the middle of the street shooting out the windows on both sides.”
In his more than half a century career in the newspaper business producing news stories and commentaries for the Newark News, Philadelphia Bulletin and Star-Ledger, John Farmer Sr., was the personification of Lisagor’s creed and with deadly accuracy.
Farmer, 89, died Wednesday at his home in a Philadelphia suburb, 18 days after his column appeared in the Star-Ledger, reflecting on the special place occupied by the Cathedral of Notre Dame in the aftermath of the fire which heavily damaged it.
While he brought his talents to other papers in his career, it was at the Newark News where he established himself as one of the premier political reporters in New Jersey.
In the 1960’s, Newark was the thriving center of commercial, social, cultural and political life in the state. And, in the golden era of newspapers, the Newark News was the largest, wealthiest and most influential in New Jersey, reaching some 400,00 subscribers daily and nearly a half-million on Sunday.
John’s coverage of state politics — particularly during his tenure as chief of the Trenton bureau for the News — was required reading for politicians as well as all those whose lives revolved around politics.
He combined a fluid writing style with incisive and insightful reports, bringing clarity to the often arcane workings of government. Even readers whose interest in politics was casual rather than dominant came away with a deeper understanding of events after reading John’s stories.
He became a transcendent figure in the media/political establishment of the time.
It was common to hear the question “Did you read Farmer today?” It wasn’t necessary to identify him any further or to refer to his paper. Farmer was Farmer.
He commanded the front page and the Sunday opinion section with stories and commentaries in the tradition of Lisagor’s “shoot out the windows on both sides” obligation.
Like most reporters, John was afflicted with the occupational disease of cynicism. He, though, balanced it with a streak of idealism, a belief that there was good to be found in the people he covered and that government could be counted on to do the right thing even though the path to the ”right thing” may have been rocky.
He could not abide artifice or hypocrisy and he used the pages of his paper to call it out and expose it. In doing so, he always offered the subject of his interest to respond, explain or clarify and he dutifully recorded it in his writing. He may have been appalled by it, but fairness and objectivity served a higher journalistic purpose than personal opinion.
The Newark News ceased publication in 1972, a victim of poor management and one of the most ill-conceived employee strikes in the history of the American labor movement.
John signed on with the Philadelphia Bulletin, serving as its White House correspondent, city editor and national editor before that paper, too, closed.
John’s last full-time gig in the news business was at the Star-Ledger where he rose to editor before retiring and becoming a contributing writer, displaying the same qualities and talents which had placed him among the state’s premier political reporters.
My professional interaction with John became more sporadic after he joined he Star-Ledger until sometime in 1994 when I served as press secretary to Gov. Christie Whitman.
I glanced up from my desk to see a tall, broad-shouldered young man enter my office, offer his hand and say: “Hi, I’m John Farmer Jr. I’m with the governor’s counsel’s office.”
My surprise was quickly replaced by the realization that time had caught up with me and I was now working with the son of a man who was a colleague my former career.
For the past several years, John Sr. and I re-established a connection we first forged in 1962 when I joined the staff of the Newark News.
We engaged in e-mail conversations, commenting on each other’s most recent column efforts.
Our agreements outnumbered our disagreements; i.e., John admired President Obama and felt that President Trump should have remained a real estate tycoon, golf course builder and casino owner.
But, it was his dismay and sadness over the devastation which had befallen the news business — a vocation he loved and revered — that came through in many of his messages.
He understood the economic pressures wrought by the communications revolution which sent advertising dollars fleeing the print media and onto computer screens.
We shared the pain from afar as one paper after another closed or suffered massive cutbacks in a struggle to survive.
There was an element of nostalgia in our conversations, mutual flashbacks to a time when newsprint ruled and people actually sat at kitchen tables or easy chairs to read the evening paper. We both understood that nostalgia is the chisel that chips the rough edges off the good old days but we did it anyway.
In the year between the closing of the Bulletin and his joining the Star-Ledger, John took on the duties of press secretary to Gov. Brendan Byrne, then entering the final year of his second term.
I served as press secretary in the gubernatorial campaign of Tom Kean in 1981 and, when he was elected, it fell to me to meet with John to discuss transition issues.
We spent more time reminiscing than talking about the outgoing Byrne Administration and the incoming Kean Administration.
At the conclusion of our meeting, I asked him if it was okay if I told people I was replacing John Farmer.
“It’s good for my resume, my ego and my career,” I told him.
He smiled, shook my hand and wished me luck.
Later, it occurred to me that while I could succeed John Farmer, neither I nor anyone else could replace John Farmer.
Carl Golden served as press secretary to Govs. Kean and Whitman and is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.