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Dunkirk's Bill Hammond retires: Giant lessons in journalism in a small upstate city

Erica Hammond Carlson sent me a message on Facebook the other day. She told me her father was retiring after 45 years, and that she was contacting old friends for some reflections about his career. She wondered if I might have a point or two to add.

A point or two? How about this:

You're reading this because of him.

Her dad is Bill Hammond, longtime news editor with The Observer in Dunkirk, always the Evening Observer to me. Erica told me her dad was getting ready to clean out his desk, and I read her note and went upstairs and found a key chain on my bedroom dresser. It is heavy with keys I've carried since I was a kid.

There is one that would unlock the front door to my childhood home, the house in Dunkirk my parents rented for years. There is another for a lock on a backyard shed we finished building while my father – a factory guy – was in the hospital, recovering from the open heart surgery that saved his life, at least for a while.

They are, in a way, the keys to my entire life, including one that opened a side door at The Observer. Hammond gave it to me when I was a teenager, a solid 40 years ago. He trusted me to let myself into the newsroom at night, a decision I have no doubt bent the rules, a decision I did my best to respect.

Even as I write this, I am there: The heavy door opened onto Central Avenue in Dunkirk, bitter snow-flecked Lake Erie wind blowing in from the Dunkirk Harbor a block away, dark windows of faded brick storefronts across the street, neon sign for the old Puerto Rican Social Club burning at the corner.

I would be coming back from covering some high school football or basketball game in Brocton or Cassadaga in Chautauqua County, sometimes carrying the monstrous box-sized camera we’d use if we had to shoot the games ourselves. I’d go in and get a cup of metallic coffee for a quarter from a machine, then I'd settle in at the first computer system I ever used. Hammond would already be there with another sportswriter, Jerry Reilly, long-haired young guys who treated me – at least when it came to my work - like an adult.

At home, I was a restless kid who'd sneak into the woods to drink cheap beer, a kid who was generally unhappy with himself. I'd battle with my parents over foolish matters in which, I know now, I was almost always wrong, often after falling hopelessly in love with girls who had no clue I was alive.

Bill Hammond (left) as I knew him in the 1970s, with the late Phil McGan and Henry McKee, longtime colleagues, gathered around the desk of Keith Sheldon, a veteran editor. (Hammond family photo)

In those ways, I was still essentially a child. At The Observer, I turned into something else: I was a teenager learning to be a serious journalist, soaking up a better education about the craft than I could have received in any lecture hall at any famous J-school. As a 13-year-old, my junior high basketball team went to the diocesan championship round, in Buffalo. I began typing up short game stories on an old Royal in my dining room, using strips of “whiteout” to correct any mistakes. My mother would edit them, and I would drop them in a mail slot at the old Observer building.

They’d get published. It was magic. I knew what I wanted to do.

A year later, when I was 14, Hammond took a chance and hired me to write daily fast-pitch city league softball results. The game was a matter of staggering passion in Dunkirk, where softball was the release, the religion, after long shifts in factories. There were dozens of teams. The paper printed every box score. On summer nights, five days a week, my job was writing summaries of each game and keeping batting averages for hundreds of players. I'd pick up the scores at the police station, type them up and stuff my piece in an envelope, then ride my bike downtown, around midnight, and drop the story at the paper.

Make a mistake, and you could have some upset guy – breath smelling of beer – on your front porch the next day, arguing that he'd had three hits, not two.

By the time I was a high school sophomore, I was in The Observer newsroom on Tuesday and Friday nights, covering high school games, taking calls from coaches, writing results ....

Thanks to Hammond. He was barely out of college himself, a young guy in his early 20s, but he was the sports editor in a community that cared about high school athletics to the point of frenzy. There were three local schools – Dunkirk, Fredonia and the now-closed Cardinal Mindszenty – and each one, in the 1970s, had supporters convinced The Observer conspired to diminish their favorite teams. Hammond would routinely handle the wrath of aggrieved readers or coaches, upset about the size or scope of an article. Watching him, I learned some of the greatest lessons of my life.

In my house, as I grew up, anger was nitroglycerin: If someone lost their temper, it was seen as a personal insult, and everything around us would blow apart. Hammond didn’t respond to anger in that way. He listened. People said awful things to him, often unfair and wild things. He did not say them back. Instead, he used reason. He did his best to defuse fury. I can see him, bent forward at his desk, phone against his ear, while some over-the-top coach or parent shouted on the other end.

He kept his composure until he somehow got them off the phone, and I realized in that patience, in that quiet balance ….

There it was. That was a key to journalism.

Maybe even life.

Certification for the 12-year-old Bill Hammond to work as a paper carrier.

When I started, in an ancient brick building that smelled of ink and oil, we still had real glue pots on the desk. “Cutting and pasting” involved scissors and real paper, and we dropped our copy in baskets at the back of the room, where magical hands appeared to carry the basket through a window, to transform those words into print. We soon moved to a new building with gleaming terminals – The Observer, being so small, went to computers very early – where Hammond and Reilly taught me the building blocks about the business:

Always get the score right, and put it at the top. In an immigrant town filled with such great family names as Chrabasz and Woloszyn, take the time to spell every name correctly, because it can mean everything to someone, because that clipping might go in a scrapbook forever. Most important, I learned this from Hammond's daily example:

Doing great work does not mean you need to leave where you are. He was a gifted sportswriter. He had the intuitive ability to watch a game and to understand the moment when momentum swings – not necessarily a touchdown or a turnover, but the failed third down, the short punt, the subtle instant you always sense on a gut level as a spectator but many writers, even national sportswriters, can sometimes miss.

Hammond nailed those moments. He was talented enough to work in a much bigger town, but he had his roots in Dunkirk, and pretty soon that's where he and his wife, Patty, were raising their kids, Erica and Matt. Hammond's dad, a longtime baseball scout, often stopped by the office; what Hammond wanted from life, he found each day in that lakefront community.

Outside of work, he was an umpire and a referee, and he brought the same level-headed reasoning to his job. He wrote a graceful column, “Hammond Wry,” and his philosophy of column writing had an enormous impact on my own: His opinions were always rooted in logic and common sense, in gentle humor. He talked with readers, not at them. He could make a strong point, but he was never cruel or dismissive.

A 40-year-old key to the old Dunkirk Evening Observer. (Sean Kirst/submitted image)

I already knew, somehow, someday, that I wanted to do the same thing.  I worked at The Observer through college, until I was 22, and then I turned down a chance for a full-time job to leave on a nomadic and continuing journey that would take me through Rochester and Niagara Falls and Syracuse and on now to these columns for Buffalo, an upstate pilgrimage built upon the same approach and ethic ….

Always, really, beginning with Hammond.

Life goes like this: The years accelerate, and you don't always see the people who matter. Hammond moved to higher editing positions at The Observer, and we haven’t talked all that much as the decades became rockets. So I am thankful for a chance to say this directly: Bill, you retire today, but you really don’t. What you taught me, what you taught so many of us, goes on in every column that I write, and I try to pass it along in every classroom or lecture hall when I speak to students ....

Be fair, but don’t be afraid to find your voice. Use simple words for big ideas. You’re reporting about human beings; give them that respect. Always get the score right. Don't misspell a name. If coaches yell at you, remember:  You don't have to yell back.

And if you see a kid who’s got a shot, well, give the kid a key.

Sean Kirst, recipient of the 2009 Ernie Pyle Award for human interest writing, is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. If you want to share a thought, email Kirst at or leave a comment after this piece. You can read more of his work in this archive.

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