A cat who returned; a journalist who stayed put

Friday morning delivered two feel-good moments simultaneously and completely unrelated.

First, a slightly neurotic cat of mine named Amy returned home after a five-day absence. It was her longest field trip since we rescued her as a kitten several years ago and brought her home with her sister to live an indoor-outdoor life at Horsefeathers Farm.

Influenced by my dark side, I’d given her up for dead, perhaps consumed by a coyote. But no, there she was, trotting down the hallway and into the bedroom, using her mournful meow to announce her triumphant return.

Minutes later, with Amy by my side, I finished reading “Booth Who?” – a biography of Booth Gardner, the state’s 19th governor and tight-fisted Weyerhaeuser heir who was more comfortable chatting with Little Leaguers and championing causes – think “Death with Dignity” – than he was waging political battles with legislative leaders.

“He could have been a Palm Springs playboy. He chose civic involvement,” the “Booth Who?” author observes. “Facing the ultimate curve ball, a debilitating illness, he chose to try to inspire and help other victims of Parkinson’s.” This well-researched, insightful look at Gardner’s public and private life was written by my mentor, John C. Hughes, who has spent most of his adult life as reporter, editor and publisher of The Daily World in Aberdeen – 42 years, all told.

In 2008, Hughes retired from his hometown paper to take the position of chief historian in the Office of the Secretary of State, pouring his considerable talent into crafting biographies of the state’s movers and shakers for the state’s Legacy Project.

With the June release of “Booth Who?” Hughes’ writing and storytelling ability is now on display for the wider audience he deserves. Next on tap is a biography of Slade Gorton, a former state attorney general and U.S. senator.

Before he shifted career gears, the occasional columns Hughes wrote for the small-town newspaper to which he dedicated his heart and soul were just as biting as those of Carl Hiassen of The Miami Herald, just as witty as those of Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, and just as rich in context as those of Joel Connelly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Hughes could have been a columnist for any metropolitan paper in the country, but he chose to stay home and work for his hometown paper.

He hired me in 1978, helping me attain my goal of landing on a daily newspaper staff before I turned 30. Unlike Hughes, a former paperboy, I got a late start in journalism.

He turned me loose to cover the trials and tribulations of the Washington Public Power Supply System as it tried and failed to complete two nuclear power plants at Satsop, near Elma.

“Just go where the story takes you,” Hughes would tell me when the Chamber of Commerce types started howling that our critical coverage was bad for the local economy.

It was the best advice I ever received as a journalist.

While many Grays Harbor natives can’t wait to escape the relentless rain and leaden skies of Aberdeen, Hoquiam and Cosmopolis, Hughes never left, wearing his Harbor pedigree like a badge of courage. I’ve never met anyone more committed to community journalism and most likely never will.

His journalistic progeny are spread all across Western Washington and beyond. He knew that if you had the right stuff and accepted his tutelage, he would lose you to a bigger paper. That didn’t deter him from being the best teacher he could be.

Back to the biography, which I read in three sittings, including one work night last week when I stayed up way past my bedtime. Some memorable passages include:

 • In a 2009 interview with Gardner, Hughes asked him what grade he would give himself as a two-term governor, beginning in 1984. Like many political observers, Gardner said a “B,” then added in candor: “This will sound strange, but I didn’t think it was worth the price to go for an A.”

 • In his first term as governor, Gardner was impressed with senior assistant attorney general Chris Gregoire’s work supervising the attorney general’s comparable-worth team, designed to end decades of pay discrimination against female state employees.

When it came time for new leadership at the state Department of Ecology in 1988, Gardner asked Gregoire to be director. Gregoire didn’t think she was qualified, but Gardner insisted. Flash forward 22 years and Gregoire is a two-term governor, too.

 • Gardner had a hard time being loyal to those politicos who were loyal to him, Hughes notes. Grays Harbor County Commissioner Mike Murphy was an early member of Gardner’s kitchen Cabinet and a qualified finalist in 1988 for the new Department of Wildlife director’s job. Gardner passed him over after urging him to apply for the job.

“We all have our character flaws, and one of mine is a tendency to kick my friends … while I’m trying to win over my enemies,” Gardner confessed at a meeting of county officials a few weeks later.

I read the biography less to learn about Gardener and more to savor the writing of my mentor. Leave it to Hughes to shed light on Booth Gardner, and a chapter in state history, in an attention-grabbing way.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444