Lisa Zenzen Baker, 1961-2003


Sunday, August 03, 2008

In the begining

Censored story led to meeting

By David Baker
First posted Sunday, August 3, 2008

It was 26 years ago this week – on August 4, 1982 – that I first spoke to Lisa. And the reason that telephone call took place was because someone didn’t want an item to appear in a newspaper.

Lisa was a reporter at The Record in Troy. I had been a reporter and for a short time, the editor of a weekly newspaper based in Defreestville, the Greenbush Area News, or as it was generally known, the GAN.

The week before my conversation with Lisa I had written an editorial for the GAN about the fact that the local ambulance squad was struggling to pay for its phone lines. The editorial suggested that New York Telephone – the company that later became first NYNEX and now Verizon, and which had a monopoly on local phone service – make a single exception and give volunteer ambulance squads the same concession it gave its own employees: telephone service at cost.

It seemed like a reasonable suggestion and the editorial was very low key.

But not reasonable enough for the paper’s owner, Anthony DiBello.

DiBello also operated a bulk mail service, sorting and sending out advertising material and newsletters for companies such as Gardenway, Inc., then based in Troy.

And New York Telephone.

DiBello had once handed editor Nancy Webber a list of local people and business, with the instruction that she was to see him before we wrote anything “negative” about them.

But by the time I wrote the editorial Nancy had moved on, leaving me to run the paper.

That week we put the paper ‘to bed’ as usual on the Monday evening, sending it by bus to a printer in Bennington Vt. I was not at the office the next morning when DiBello’s brother Joe arrived in his pickup truck with the printed copies but by all accounts it was quite a scene.

Either DiBello picked up a copy and saw the editorial or someone brought it to his attention Either way, his reaction was immediate and dramatic: he ordered that all 4,000 copies be destroyed and the entire paper be reprinted with a column by then state Assemblyman Neil W. Kelleher about the Special Olympics taking the place of my editorial.

My next scheduled day at work was the Thursday and I half expected to be fired. But nothing was said and as I kept quiet and worked on the next issue, some of the staff told me what had happened.

And one of them had salvaged a copy of the original opinion page. I still have it. Most copies of the first printing of that week’s issue ended up as tissue paper lining shoe boxes.

I knew I could not work for someone who would do what DiBello had done. After the next issue was finished, I resigned. Then I contacted a reporter at the Times Union.

These days the TU routinely suppresses stories that might hurt its bottom line. But back then it was still a real newspaper and two days later, the story of DiBello’s censorship filled a half page in the paper, complete with a reproduction of both the original editorial and the replacement page. Instead of being read by a handful of people in Rensselaer County (and probably soon forgotten), my editorial and the story of DiBello’s attempt to suppress it were seen by tens of thousands of people across upstate New York and reported by several radio and TV stations.

In the TU story a spokesman for New York Telephone was quoted as saying that the suggestion in the piece was a reasonable one that the company would consider.

And so on the morning of August 4, 1982, Lisa was calling me for comment for The Record. In the event that paper’s story was written by another reporter and ran the next day.

But I still might not have married Lisa had it not been for the The GAN’s former editor, Nancy Webber. A year later, Nancy was working at The Courier, a Columbia County based newspaper that had an office in East Greenbush. Lisa had also taken a job there and was covering the city of Rensselaer. I had been working on a radio station in Florida until the paychecks starting bouncing and I returned to the Capital Region.

On hearing that I was back, Nancy asked me if I would give Lisa some background on Rensselaer’s government, which I had covered during the short but tumultuous tenure of Mayor Thomas E. Henry III, and which was still making news.

Lisa and I were married in 1985. Nancy Webber soon left newspaper work. She is now communications director at the Latham office of the New York State Nurses Association, which represents about 36,000 nurses, although not those who work at Samaritan Hospital.