By Mary McLachlin
At 67, Richard Gale Ballantine calls himself a lucky man.
“I’ve had two things in my life that I really enjoyed doing – journalism and farming,” he said. “And I’ve gotten to do both of them. Many people don’t get to do even one.”
With a clear sense of timing and symmetry, Ballantine stepped up on his old orange crate podium one day last February and told his staff he was going to be stepping down as publisher of The Durango Herald, handing off the job he took on 30 years ago from his mother.
He would still be chairman of the board and write some editorials, he said, “but I won’t be here every minute, every day.”
His office desk, legendary for its mountains of paper – “one of the Seven Wonders of Durango,” a friend labeled it – was swept clean, the wall of bookshelves emptied and a new CEO installed.
Douglas Bennett, who took over this month, wears the title of chief executive officer – not publisher – underlining the leap from hometown newspaper to multimedia businesses in a digital and wider market. For the first time in more than 60 years, no Ballantine oversees the complex human and mechanical processes of meeting daily deadlines and putting out newspapers in the Four Corners.
But the saga of the Ballantines in Colorado is still being written, quietly and with little public attention, as always. The publisher may have left the building, but he still carries with him the family agenda of worthy causes and principles – education, arts, good government, philanthropy and public service.
Three decades of change
Ballantine had steered the Herald through 30 years of expansion and success, turning it into a modern newspaper with influence far beyond its circulation size and range. Its news and advertising departments earned hundreds of statewide awards – 71 in 2012 alone – and the Colorado Press Association named him Newspaper Person of the year in 1997.
Nevertheless, times and technologies had changed drastically, Ballantine said, and new ideas and skills were needed. It was precisely the same reasoning his mother cited when she passed the publisher’s mantle to her oldest child.
Morley Ballantine, 1983: “In this swiftly-changing time when we’re in transition between the age of technocracy and the coming information age that prophets predict, it’s important to have vigorous leadership. ... Richard’s bright and quick and, above all, he has common sense.”
Richard Ballantine, 2013: “Digital distribution and digital interactivity is where communication is and is going. We felt we had to have a leader who knows how we can play a role in that.”
The prophets were right, and their predictions were right on. The information age dawned like thunder.
In the next three tumultuous decades, newspapers flourished and then foundered under a technological tsunami. Newsrooms jumped from typewriters to electronic scanners to clunky computers to laptops to wireless devices. Production shops and pressrooms abandoned the huge cameras needed to make multiple images of newspaper pages for printing plates and moved to direct computer-to-plate methods.
Still, readers and advertisers continued to fall away into the burgeoning digital universe, seduced by its exciting new toys and tools and speed.
Through it all, Ballantine kept nudging the Herald forward, with the backing of his family. They bought local papers in Cortez, Mancos and Dolores; published business magazines and independent phone directories to bring in extra money; created websites; restructured the corporate makeup of the company. The strategy paid off.
“He saw that the challenges being faced by the Herald were really no different than the challenges being faced by newspapers of all sizes,” said Gary Hook, former USA Today executive and a board member of Ballantine Communications Inc. “It has gone essentially from a Durango-centric perspective to a much broader outlook.”
The family found change hard, trying to figure out the new directions the world was going, said Helen Healy, Ballantine’s sister and fellow board member. “Richard was the leader because he was there, and he was running it. We would have our differences, but we would reach consensus and move along. He usually had his reasons for where he was headed.”
Ink in the bloodline
The ink in Ballantine’s bloodline flows directly from his mother, Elizabeth Morley Cowles, daughter and granddaughter of publishers in the Cowles media chain. At 19, she married a young soldier, Richard Gale Jr., during World War II, and was left a widow with an infant son when Gale took his own life in 1946.
In post-war Minnesota, she met Arthur Ballantine, a Harvard University and Yale Law School graduate working as a legislative reporter at her father’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. They married in 1947 and had three more children before leaving the comfortable orbits of family and city life to search for a place, and a newspaper, of their own. They found both in Durango, where they bought two small papers in 1952 and combined them into the Herald.
All four of their youngsters worked at one job or another at the Herald as they grew up – stuffing and delivering papers, adding up receipts, melting lead for printing plates – but all left Durango, eventually, for other lives and careers.
Richard Ballantine earned a history degree at Stanford University, joined the Army and did a tour in Vietnam before he came back to Colorado and started farming in Longmont. His sister, Elizabeth, became a lawyer and consultant in the Washington, D.C., area; Helen was an accountant and CPA before focusing on raising her own four children in Wichita, Kan. William became a real estate developer and adopted the role of arts patron, collector and philanthropist in Kirkland, Wash.
Three of the siblings are still Herald directors, and each of them now has a son or daughter on the board.
Bill Ballantine resigned in 2012 when he pleaded guilty to tax evasion. The experience was shocking and painful for a family nurtured on high ideals and public service. For Richard Ballantine, publisher, it also drove home again the hard fact that, sooner or later, integrity exacts a price, financial or personal.
He and the Herald had paid both over the years, whether losing advertising and subscribers for supporting certain causes or candidates, or reporting a teenage son’s scrape with the law or a beloved brother’s fall from grace. As he defined it, a newspaper reports the troubles of other people’s families, so it should be prepared to do the same within its own.
“There was never any question in my mind,” he said. “I took a hands-off attitude and let the newsroom perform as it thought necessary.”
Integrity is one of Ballantine’s strongest qualities, said Peter Decker, a former member of the state commission on higher education and an original trustee of Fort Lewis College. The two have worked together on education issues since the early 1980s.
“Richard knows how difficult it is to create personal integrity and a personal reputation,” Decker said. “He also knows how quickly it can vanish with a dumb statement or foolish act.”
A place to grow
When Arthur Ballantine died of a heart attack in 1975, his widow became publisher and shouldered the responsibility of the newspaper. Five years later, Richard and Mary Lyn Ballantine left their farm in Longmont and came back to Durango so he could join the staff and help carry the load.
But first, they had to find a place where he could farm.
“I like to plant seeds and watch things grow,” he says simply, when anyone asks about his love of the soil.
The agricultural gene may have been passed down from a grandfather, Richard Pillsbury Gale, of the Pillsbury flour milling family. Gale served two terms as a Republican congressman in the early 1940s, then went back to his farm in Minnesota.
Ballantine has the forearms and fingernails of a man who drives tractors and works on machinery. He does both on the 400 acres of Florida Mesa land where he and Mary Lyn settled. The tractors are for work; the collection of old Alfa Romeos he tinkers with are for fun.
State Sen. Ellen Roberts, a Republican, doesn’t always agree with the Herald’s editorial opinions, but says Ballantine “is Southwest Colorado from the tip of his toes to the top of his head.”
When she made her first run for office, he gave her a crash course in farm life.
“He told me I needed to get on a tractor, and I said I’d love to, but I don’t have one,” Roberts said. “So he got me out there on the mesa, he put me behind the wheel of a tractor, and we spent half a day baling hay. I didn’t do a very good job of getting the bales lined up correctly, but I really appreciated his helping me appreciate agriculture.
“It took quite a few weeks to get all the bits of hay out of my sweater.”
Driving through his fields of oats, hay and alfalfa, Ballantine points out the nest of a red-tailed hawk family, explains in detail how a circular irrigation system works, jumps out to measure a segment of pipe, pacing it off with a farmer’s stride. He is at home and at ease in this peaceful world.
It is 17 minutes – he’s timed it – away from his other world, where presses break down, papers are late, subscribers complain, editors need decisions now and the kaleidoscopic demands of family, business and community collide.
“I couldn’t have been just a farmer,” he admits. “That’s an isolated kind of life, and I enjoy the interaction with other people, the energy of it, the things you learn.”
He enjoys it so much that he strikes up conversations with strangers in restaurants and airports, in foreign countries, on sidewalk benches in downtown Durango, asking where they’re from, what they do, what they think.
“Richard has a boundless curiosity about people and what path brought them to where they are at that moment,” in the words of Sidny Zink, a Durango accountant and state transportation commissioner. ”He doesn’t hesitate to quiz people with straightforward questions, the kind that might be beyond a comfort level for most of us. The kind that elicit a tacit ‘I can’t believe you just asked that!’”
Ballantine once canceled a scheduled meeting with Herald board member Gary Hook, saying he had to work on a speech for a Republican women’s club luncheon.
“I wished him luck, because the editorial pages of the Herald tend to be liberal,” Hook said. “When I asked him how it went, he said, ‘Oh, they came with both barrels blazing. It was great!’
”He knew what he was walking into, and he relished it – an opportunity to discuss and debate.”
Serving community and the state
Gentle persuasion is Ballantine’s most effective tool, according to Gail Klapper, director of the Denver-based Colorado Forum. The nonpartisan group of 65 business and civic leaders analyzes and takes positions on issues affecting education, government, health care and other statewide matters of public policy.
Klapper credits Ballantine with being a strategic force in the Animas-La Plata Project, a decades-long effort to settle tribal claims to water rights and construct a water storage and distribution system to serve cities and irrigation networks in Southwest Colorado.
“Richard has a quiet personality,” she said. “But when he sees something he wants to make happen, something he believes in, his statements are persuasive and well-researched and stated in a way that everybody believes in what he’s saying. He doesn’t make his case in a way that puts people off, he makes it with good information and with a smile.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper said Ballantine’s work with statewide organizations such as the Forum means “he takes good ideas back to Durango, and also extends the range of The Durango Herald.”
“It’s hard to find a community that, over the last 30 years, has evolved as successfully as Durango,” Hickenlooper said. “He’s a newspaperman, not just an owner who wants to maximize profit. His reputation before I ever met him was that community came first.”
Dedicated to newspapers
And that’s the best argument for never selling to someone like Jeff Bezos, the Amazon.com founder who recently bought the Washington Post, said Herald board member Wayne Roth, a former Colorodan who heads a public radio news station in Seattle.
“The Ballantine family is so dedicated to publishing news, and producing a well-written news story is the most expensive enterprise there is,” Roth said. “Distant owners don’t understand how important that is, having someone there, reporting on city hall, schools, hospitals, et cetera.”
As Elizabeth Ballantine put it, “As a family, we had a long-term vision for the newspaper. Richard managed it successfully for my generation. We don’t know what impossible challenges will face our children. Regardless, a core Ballantine family value is the belief that a healthy press is critical to U.S. democracy and to all our lives.”
Despite the demands of publishing a growing daily newspaper, Ballantine never said no to any request for help in a public cause, said Richard Lamm, governor of Colorado from 1975 to 1987.
“No matter how inconvenient, no matter how much the task imposed on him – he was there,” said Lamm, now co-director of the University of Denver’s Public Policies Institute.
“Richard cares!” Lamm wrote in an email. “What easy words to say, but how hard to earn. He loves the whole state, its history, its public policy issues and its people. He has given so much of his time and devotion to making this a better state.”
Each of Ballantine’s parents came from affluent families, and each generation has used its resources to support causes and institutions they believe in.
Devoted to Fort Lewis College
Morley Ballantine believed passionately in education, and in equality and opportunity for women. She had been a student at Smith College, Stanford University and the University of Minnesota, but her pursuit of a college degree was detoured by marriages, babies and a newspaper career. In 1975, the year she turned 50, she earned a bachelor of arts in Southwest Studies from Fort Lewis College. It was later that year that her husband died.
Fort Lewis was a tiny agricultural and mechanical arts school in Hesperus with 300-plus students when the family arrived in Durango.
“It had a pulse, but barely,” Richard Ballantine said.
They joined the crusade to move it to Durango and succeeded in 1956. Since then, the Ballantine name has been inextricable from the school’s growth and progress into the full liberal arts college it is today.
“If you totaled up everything they’ve done for Fort Lewis, all the way back to the early ’50s, it would be in the millions,” said Joel Jones, college president from 1988 to 1998.
Major donations went into Center of Southwest Studies, the Ballantine Media Center and a collection of Native American textile weavings that Jones said is insured for several hundred thousand dollars, but has a historic and cultural value that is priceless.
“For years, Richard quietly stood in his mother’s shadow,” Jones said. “Richard was right there, doing whatever was needed to support his mother’s efforts, but his really sustaining commitment was the college.
“If he thinks a cause is worthy, he will give time, energy and, if appropriate, money to that cause. But always quietly.”
Ballantine was chairman of the college’s board of trustees when FLC President Dene Kay Thomas was hired in 2011. His pride in Fort Lewis and his understanding of the importance of liberal arts and Native American education were clear from her first discussion with him, Thomas said.
“It’s wonderful when you have someone who’s interested and able to contribute financially to further higher education,” she said, “but even more wonderful when they contribute conceptually.”
She quoted a saved email from Ballantine: “At some point, the rest of the world is going to recognize what a superb college Fort Lewis is.”
“That is so quintessentially Richard,” Thomas said.
Ballantine has given up some of his civic and business obligations, but still serves on the college foundation’s board of trustees and with a handful of other organizations.
Retirement – “the R word,” he calls it – has temporarily put him in a quandary: How best to use the time ahead?
“This is all new to him,” his sister Helen said. “He’s either done farming or the Herald his whole life. The paper has always been the heart of the whole organization, and that has been Richard’s heart.”
But there is the hay, the alfalfa, the farm. After so many years, why not spend some time for himself?
“I love being on a tractor all day,” he said. “But should that be one day out of seven? Two days out of seven? I’m trying to figure out the balance between what’s right for me and what I could be doing for a better world.”
He’s still working on it.
Mary McLachlin is a retired journalist who enjoyed a long career with several metro newspapers in Florida. She lives in Vallecito during the summer and appears regularly at the Herald to do writing coaching for reporters.