Last week, the mayor of Stamford and the U.S. Representative representing the city made a cameo appearance.
This week, we’re going to circle back to a prominent public figure of a different sort who showed up on my grandpa’s calendar:
Don Russell, born Rustici, got in on the ground floor of television in the 1940s and seemed poised to make a big-time career of it.
He worked for the DuMont network, served as Jackie Gleason’s on-camera announcer, and anchored the first national broadcast of a presidential inauguration in 1953. He hosted early TV news programs in New York, and produced broadcasts of the Grand Old Opry in Nashville.
But, having made his mark on a larger stage, Russell apparently decided he preferred the comforts of home. For the last few decades of his professional life, Russell split his time between WSTC-AM — Stamford’s local AM radio station — and the local daily paper, the Stamford Advocate, where he wrote a column about current and historic local events.
It strikes me that — with the decline in newspapers and local radio — the likes of Don Russell may be on their way out. The local media celebrity may be an endangered species.
On the other hand, the media outlets I worked for in the ’90s and 2000s were eager to create their own local celebrities, crafting ads that promoted reporters who had no deep ties to the local area and were likely to be gone in two years’ time.
(I worked for one such chain of papers in Massachusetts in the Nineties. I left the chain just as it was about to promote me; but I know it advertised others whose attachment to the company was just as short-lived.)
Perhaps the issue is not that Don Russells do not happen any more, but that they do not happen organically.
You can’t really fake a connection to a community, nor can you douse it with Miracle-Gro and hope it develops overnight.
“He loved this city like few people have, and while he was not afraid to criticize it, he always looked for the best in Stamford, throughout its history, up into our time of momentous change,” Stamford Advocate editorial page editor Tom Mellana is quoted in Russell’s obit (linked above).
Every city needs a Don Russell to tell its stories. And while Russell’s coverage probably seemed provincial at the time, it probably looks deeply informed and sincere by comparison to whatever passes for commentary these days.
I have no way to know what my grandpa called Don Russell about. Perhaps the great man did a news item about one of my grandpa’s local art exhibitions. Or maybe he wrote a scathing column about dirty water in the Springdale neighborhood, using my grandpa as a source.
Either way, I give Russell credit for knowing who Bill Blumenau was. A truly top-class local columnist or reporter can’t just rely on their own experience. They have to have a network of townies willing to pass on the scoop from their neighborhoods.
The truly great local reporters have to have an amicable relationship with City Hall, but must also be able to rip open its poses and bluffs using the word of real people. If my grandpa was one of those real people, it’s a credit to Don Russell that my grandpa felt he could pass along information and get results.
Don Russell died in 2010, nine years after my grandfather. The old WSTC disappeared a year later, when the station was sold to a nonprofit organization broadcasting National Public Radio programming.
I have no idea what means a Stamford resident might use nowadays to get publicity for a local story. They probably have to call some twentysomething reporter who’s already busy covering three events at once.
Good luck to them both.