A reporter’s retrospective

  • Retired Recorder reporter Richie Davis holds his new book, “Inner Landscapes: True Tales from Extraordinary Lives.” CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  •  ”Inner Landscapes: True Stories of Extraordinary Lives” by Richie Davis, who wrote for the Greenfield Recorder for 40 years. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

  • “Inner Landscapes: True Tales from Extraordinary Lives” by Richie Davis. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

Staff Writer
Published: 6/13/2020 10:52:25 PM

Richie Davis spent much of the past four decades talking with people throughout the county and beyond who had stories to tell — and he helped them tell those stories so that others wouldn’t forget them.

Davis, who lives in Montague, retired from his position as senior/regional reporter at The Greenfield Recorder more than a year ago, and has since compiled those stories in a book, “Inner Landscapes: True Tales from Extraordinary Lives,” which can be found on his website and in local book stores as they re-open during the pandemic.

“These stories were buried in bound volumes of the Recorder,” Davis said. “There are so many lives in those volumes. I chose to republish some of them in my book. They were too inspirational not to.”

Davis describes so many of the people he wrote about over his 40 years at the local newspaper. He calls them “incredible characters” who are “living their lives all around us.”

He said the most difficult part of collecting the stories was picking the ones that stood out for him, because they all meant something special to him.

“I knew I wanted to narrow the book to people stories, but there were just so many to choose from,” he said. “There were so many real and engaging people. Some in agriculture, some fighting injustices, some fighting against attacks on the environment, some just living their lives.”

Davis worked with Recorder photographer Paul Franz to find photos for the book.

“Some of the stories are depressing, while others are truly uplifting,” he said. “I wanted to find balance.”

The local writer, musician and artist said one of the stories that immediately came to mind was about Jessica Murrow, who lost her husband on Sept. 11, 2001. 

“They had been estranged and were just coming back together when she lost him,” he said.

Then, there was former Greenfield Department of Public Works employee John Bean, 66, who committed suicide by jumping off the French King Bridge in 2016.

“The paper rarely wrote about suicides,” he said. “But John was well-known and was starting to show signs of dementia. It was emotionally difficult for him. I was able to present his suicide in a way that didn’t sugar-coat it, but wasn’t morbid or too intimate, either.”

Another story featured Juanita Nelson, an ardent pacifist, war tax resister, civil rights activist and supporter of local organic agriculture, who died at 91 years old in a local nursing home in 2015.

“I wrote about local people who spent their entire lives farming or fighting for what they believed in,” Davis said. “Most of the people I interviewed and wrote about didn’t take themselves too seriously, at least not as seriously as some of the rest of us took them.”

In some cases, he wrote about those who are included in the book several times during his career, so as he chose certain stories, he used information from other articles and added to the stories he chose. Haley’s of Athol published the book, which includes forewords by former colleagues Denny Wilkins and Adam Orth.

“I wanted to go into advertising when I was a kid,” he said. “Somewhere along the way, I decided that wasn’t what I wanted — I wanted to tell the whole story, not the story that met someone else’s needs.”

He started reading the New York Times when he was in junior high school.

“Column writing appealed to me,” he said. 

Davis, who grew up on Long Island in New Hyde Park, N.Y., studied political science and journalism at SUNY Brockport in New York. He made a “conscious decision” to start at a small paper after graduation.

“I worked at a weekly for a couple of years,” he said. 

After interviewing at more than a dozen newspapers in New England, he decided to start his career at the Recorder, never dreaming he’d end his career there, as well. He found community journalism was so much more interesting than even he had imagined.

“I covered West County and was blessed enough to create the energy and environmental beat,” he said. “I covered agriculture, nuclear issues, the gas pipeline and so much more. Then, I did some editing, but always wanted to go back to writing.”

Davis wrote numerous series for the newspaper, including one about Vermont Yankee, hazardous waste, yogurt, domestic violence and sexual assault, to name a few. 

“It was always the people I loved writing about, though,” he said. “Long before I retired, I had decided I wanted to do a compilation of my work on people.”

“Inner Landscapes” covers everything from older and younger people to people facing all types of challenges to people doing all sorts of interesting things.

“Even now, more than a year after retiring, I’m always seeing stories,” he said. “There’s always something gnawing at me to get out of my car or off my bike and stop to talk with someone. This book was my legacy project. I don’t know if I’ll do another one.”

But, now it’s music he really wants to concentrate on. 

“Music requires such discipline and I want, need that,” he said. “I’m putting my efforts into that right now.”

A percussionist, Davis is drawn by intricate rhythms and enticing modalities and is especially interested in Romany, Jewish, Balkan and Middle Eastern musical styles. He loves jazz, as well, and has played in marching bands, on drum sets and on hand drums around the U.S. and beyond. He has also done choral singing, klezmer and Greek music and African, Sephardic and Middle Eastern drumming take. He has performed at coffeehouses, nightclubs, colleges, resorts and even at Carnegie Hall and during the 1993 presidential inauguration.

Davis will continue to write, but probably just some journaling for a while as he concentrates on his music. 

If he decides to do a second book, he said his process will be the same, should he decide to interview people for that one.

“I rarely come to an interview with specific questions,” he said. “I do my homework about the person, but then I let that person tell his or her story.”

He loves colorful, quirky people and has interviewed plenty of those.

“I like to show a person’s personality and character, but I also like to get to ‘why’ they are who they are,” he said.

Because of COVID-19, Davis said he can’t do readings at this time, but decided to launch the book anyway.

“It was time for me, and I believe it was time for the readers,” he said. “I don’t have to be out reading it or marketing it. I just want people to pick it up and enjoy stories they might remember reading in the paper in the past.”

While people are still somewhat staying home, Davis noted it’s a good time to sit and read about Franklin County neighbors or former neighbors. 

“I’m surprised and glad that the Recorder ran these stories,” he said. “I hope everyone who reads the book sees themselves in some of these people, characters. I hope they are inspired like I was every time. These people spent their lives living in an iron lung, gardening, mourning, being an activist, working in trees. Much of the time their lives weren’t glamorous, but they were real.”

Looking to the future, Davis says he also plans to return to learning piano, take some lessons in pastels, do some Tai Chi and blog. He’ll also be meditating more than he has been to keep himself centered.

“Inner Landscapes” can be found at Boswell’s Books and Sawyer News, both in Shelburne Falls, World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield and Broadside Bookshop in Northampton, as well as on Davis’ website: richiedavis.net

Davis said he recognizes the struggles of newspapers at this time, so he is donating half of his initial royalties to The Greenfield Recorder.

“This is important to me, because it was the newspaper that allowed me to do these locally rooted, universal, amazing stories,” he said.

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.


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