‘A real craftsman of his trade’: Community mourns loss of local broadcaster, journalist Chris Collins

  • Chris Collins, a fixture of local media outlets for decades, had major health issues over the years. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Chris Collins recovering from surgery in 2011. FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Chris Collins behind the microphone. The versatile journalist did everything from covering high school sports to writing columns to serving as town moderator in Montague and running local public access TV stations. PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL DWIGHT

Staff Writer
Published: 2/14/2022 9:22:19 PM

GREENFIELD — Jeff Tirrell was driving home from visiting his wife’s family on Long Island on Sunday when his phone was bombarded with text messages from co-workers at Western Mass Radio Group.

“It was terrible, terrible news,” he recalled.

Tirrell learned Chris Collins, a friend and colleague of 40 years, had died at 54 following health issues, leaving behind his wife, Barbara. Still, the shows went on at WHAI and Bear Country, just as their colleague — a devoted local journalist and broadcaster — would have wanted.

“He would be angry if we didn’t carry on and do what we do best,” said Tirrell, the radio stations’ traffic manager and sports director. “If we didn’t stay committed to the task, he would be very upset.”

Collins had been a fixture in the local news media for decades. He had served as the news director at the WHAI and Bear Country radio stations for many years and was the Frontier Community Access Television (FCAT) general manager, Greenfield Community Television (GCTV) director and a former Greenfield Recorder writer, penning the “In the Arena” column for years until 2020.

Dan Guin, president and general manager of Western Mass Radio Group, shared sentiments similar to Tirrell’s.

“This morning I’ve been (online) reading everybody’s feelings on Chris — it’s amazing to me to see how many people’s lives he touched … he was like the Greenfield celebrity,” he said Monday morning. “You just never expect to lose someone who means so much to you. It’s just so sad to think that we’ve lost such a big part of Franklin County.”

Guin said he met Collins 27 years ago, when Guin started at the radio stations as a salesperson and Collins was “already the guy that stirred the pot and loved to do it, and was appreciated for it.”

Local disc jockey Robert “Bobby C” Campbell, another longtime friend and colleague of Collins, had started a GoFundMe page (bit.ly/3sIdpQy) last month to help Collins and his wife, Barbara, pay bills during a work hiatus caused by a hospital stint. Campbell took to Facebook on Sunday to share the news about Collins, and he later posted a touching video in which he spoke fondly of his friend.

“I couldn’t respect a man more than I do … Chris Collins,” Campbell told the Recorder Monday. “He was probably one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. He knew a lot. He knew a lot.”

Campbell, who is two years older than Collins, explained they had known each other since the 1980s, when Collins was in ninth grade. Campbell said the two had connections at Deerfield Academy and got gigs working for WGAJ, the radio station on the prestigious preparatory school’s campus. Campbell soon secured an internship at WHAI and helped his friend get a job there, where he eventually started covering current events.

“And that’s how he got started in the news business,” Campbell said. “And he rocked it, and he rocked it well.”

Collins was also known for serving as Montague’s town moderator for a few years and was instrumental to Franklin County Now, a news site started by Guin.

At-Large Councilor Christine Forgey, who served as Greenfield’s first mayor from 2003 to 2009, recalled meeting Collins when he was a young reporter covering the Greenfield High School boys ice hockey team when Forgey’s son was a member. Collins was a longtime contributor to the Recorder sports department, and he had been covering high school football games for the paper until just a few years ago.

Forgey said Collins later became her introduction to local news media when she was a cub politician running for public office and wary of speaking to reporters.

“But I can tell you that looking back on all of that … Chris was a true gentleman. He was a real craftsman of his trade,” Forgey said. “I always found him to be a very fair and impartial interviewer.”

She said the community will be hard-pressed to find a journalistic replacement for Collins, who never shied away from controversial issues in his popular “In the Arena” column.

“My remembrance of him is a great sense of humor, a nice smile and he was always a pleasure to talk to,” Forgey said.

Her mayoral successor, William Martin, said he knew Collins for 25 to 30 years, both in a professional capacity and as a family friend. He referred to Collins as “a just-the-facts man.”

“He was always anxious to find out why something happened and also what’s next,” Martin said.

Justin Abelson, who retired from the Greenfield Recorder as a news editor in September 2018, said he met Collins when Abelson started at the newspaper in 1997. He said the two eventually had a GCTV gig together. He said Collins easily grasped community journalism and its importance, though his opinions sometimes rubbed people the wrong way, which Abelson said “comes with the territory.”

“He was a talented guy who had his ear to the ground and had a lot of connections to people in the community,” he said. “(I’ll remember) that he really loved the area and he loved having his finger on the pulse of politics here. He was an incredibly hard-working guy who, sometimes to the chagrin of the newsroom, beat them on stories, in the column.”

Collins was no stranger to health issues, having been in a coma for three weeks in 2011 following a kidney infection.

According to a story published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette around that time, Collins had a wild dream while comatose, believing himself to be in a Cape Cod dive bar, connected to organized crime members who blew up his houseboat and threatened to kill his family. He awoke to find his wife crying over him and he tried to warn her to be careful. Reality set in, and he told his wife not to be sad.

“Don’t cry, honey,” he remembered telling her, “We’ve still got a lot left to do.”

Collins then learned he needed bypass surgery after cardiac tests found major blockage in three coronary arteries. Collins had open heart surgery on Aug. 29, 2011, and his chance of survival was low.

Barbara Kuschka, who for more than 50 years has been traffic manager at WHMP in Northampton, where Collins once worked on air and as news director, recalled this scary time when everyone thought they were going to lose Collins. But Collins bounced back and returned to the station to work part time.

“I know that he was committed to getting news stories,” Kuschka said. “He was a true professional. He stayed until his job was done.”

Reach Domenic Poli at dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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