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Tribute to an old friend

The remarks below were made by Donald Connery, remembering The Lakeville Journal’s late editor and publisher emeritus Robert Estabrook at his Memorial Service at the Salisbury Congregational Church, Dec. 10, 2011. The entire tribute published in two parts. The first part can be found at www.tricornernews.com.

Part Two

With his ever-abounding curiosity, Bob was so well read, so aware of history, that he could hold his own at a dinner table with any collection of scholars, ambassadors and political leaders. Many an Estabrook interview with a prime minister or foreign minister might be turned on its head when the statesman would ask Bob for his opinion or advice on the crisis of the moment, thus forcing our intrepid reporter to remember that he was supposed to report the news, not make it.

Which brings me to a final example of Bob’s haunting of my mind during the past weeks: We are now well into the holiday season and I found myself this week drawn once again into the saga of George Bailey, the hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” After years of viewing Frank Capra’s sentimental Christmas pudding, I know every line, except this time Bob was on my mind throughout the film. As played by Jimmy Stewart, George Bailey is an eminently decent man — like Bob — who is desperate not to be stuck forever in little Bedford Falls.

George wants to do big things for mankind in places as exotic as Mandalay and Timbuktu. He is a romantic ready to build bridges and towers just as Bob was a romantic with printer’s ink in his veins who loved the clickity-clack of linotype machines and the roar of the presses and who dreamed of being an eyewitness to history. “Forgive us our press passes,” he might say from boyhood on as he carried out the journalistic pledge of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

But poor George Bailey, burdened by responsibilities, was doomed to remain forever in Bedford Falls, while Bob went to the ends of the earth to fulfill his dreams until, at a time of his own choosing, with Mary Lou, he decided that he would be a nomad no longer and would put down roots in a bucolic New England small town to start the second half of his life. Like the legendary William Allen White of the weekly Emporia, Kansas, Gazette, he would demonstrate the wisdom of H.L. Mencken’s comment that the only true freedom of the press was to own the newspaper you work for.

And so it came to pass that the fictional George Bailey and the real-life Bob Estabrook ended up in much the same kind of human-sized place and would come to know how much they were treasured by the inhabitants. George, as his brother said at the end the film, was “the richest man in town”—rich in love and friends and respect. Bob too was rich beyond measure in the things that really count. He touched many lives. For one thing, he ignited the movement that spared an innocent Falls Village boy—now a man who sits with us today — from years in prison and a lifetime of disgrace.

If leaving the world a better place than it would have been if you had never lived is the ultimate test of one’s worth, then Bob Estabrook passed with flying colors. Part of his legacy is the protective blanket placed over the natural and human heritage of this Upper Housatonic region thanks to the energies of hundreds of its most concerned citizens. For nearly 40 years, from his editorial watchtower at the Journal, Bob served as a whistle-blower and a bulwark against the kind of mindless change that can erode the spirit as well as the vistas of a precious landscape.

Accordingly, I leave you with a single sentence—just one sentence — from E.B. White’s “Stuart Little” just to capture the essence of his love of his adopted home:

“In the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elm trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were wide and bushy and worth finding out about, where the streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge, where the lawns ended in orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky, in this loveliest of all towns Stuart stopped to get a drink of sarsaparilla.”

Donald Connery is a journalist and writer of books who lives in Kent.