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Mike Pride: So long to the ‘Monitor’s’ comeback kid

Last modified: 4/23/2014 9:42:07 AM
Off and on for the last quarter century, Felice Belman has been a journalist for this newspaper. Mainly she has been an editor, and not just any editor, but as one former colleague put it, “a reporter’s dream editor.”

Tomorrow is Belman’s last day at the paper. That is bad news for the Monitor, its readers and Concord. It is good news only for the Boston Globe, where she starts next month as an editor.

The last of Belman’s many acts for the Monitor was to create and run the Forum, our expanded opinion section. As usual, to maintain it she did the work of four people.

She hatched the ideas and solicited and edited the local columns. She enlisted readers for many tasks, from crafting newsy haiku to sharing their opinions on everything from the death penalty and casino gambling to Loudon Road eateries and high-powered women named Lisa.

She wrote most of the editorials and handled the letters to the editor and, sometimes, their writers. Oh, and she often laid out the pages and wrote the headlines.

Experience made Belman perfect for the job. She had been a superb State House reporter, city editor, Sunday editor and managing editor at the Monitor. For seven years, a trying time because of the economic woes all newspapers faced, she served as chief editor.

Belman arrived at the Monitor just after graduating from Oberlin College in 1988. As a political reporter, she covered Gov. Judd Gregg’s administration and Bill Clinton’s first New Hampshire primary run.

Here’s how imaginative her coverage was: When a jet-ski bill came before the Legislature, she persuaded a Kawasaki dealer to let her ride a jet ski on Lake Winnipesaukee. Along with her story about it, we ran a huge picture of her in a swimsuit enjoying the ride.

Belman had the wanderlust typical of a young journalist, and more of it than most. She left the paper three times, to work for Liz Hager’s brief gubernatorial campaign, and then for two years to report for the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press and two more to edit for the Washington Post.

Each time, we lured her back. She likes Concord, has many friends here and never lost her love of community journalism.

It was Annmarie Timmins, a former longtime reporter, who called Belman a reporter’s dream editor. “She was unflappable, unequivocal in her ethics, and brave,” Timmins wrote in an email.

Belman struck a constant note in her advice to a reporter in distress. When Bill O’Brien was House speaker, his office shut Timmins out because of an editorial cartoon he disliked. What should she do? Timmins asked. “Keep on doing your job,” Belman said.

Whether the story was a candidate’s messy child-support case that threatened to run up the Monitor’s legal bills or the Catholic Church’s complaints about tough coverage of the priest scandal, Belman knew only one response: full speed ahead.

Hans Schulz, a Globe editor who served as city editor during Belman’s tenure as editor of the Monitor, recalls her tenacity during hard budget cuts. “The bar was never lowered, and there was always work to be proud of,” he said.

Even with reduced resources, the paper continued its extensive State House, election, city and town coverage. Belman never allowed bad budget news “to trickle down to the rest of us,” Schulz said. “We could just focus on our jobs. What a gift.”

As editor, I hired Belman all four times and was proud when I retired that she was named to succeed me. My last full-time year at the paper, working as a reporter, I learned firsthand what a fine editor she is.

The year was 2007-08, so it included a double-barreled New Hampshire primary. Belman directed whiz-bang coverage of every candidate from Hillary Clinton to Mike Huckabee.

In an editorial during that campaign, Belman called Mitt Romney a “phony.” I gulped when I saw the word but soon realized it was an example of Belman’s courage. Romney had much in common with the New England weather – if you didn’t like what he said one day, you just had to wait till the next and he might take it back. “Phony” was just the word for the campaign he ran.

What good are newspaper editorials if they don’t call a thing what it is?

Courage also has a less debatable meaning. When an armed man came into the Monitor newsroom in 1998, it was Belman who ushered him into an empty office. She was the city editor at the time, and she and a reporter engaged the man in conversation until Belman talked her way out of his presence and came to my office.

She dialed 911 while I went to inform the publisher so he could evacuate the other departments. Then, because of Felice’s smart work, I was able to walk across the newsroom telling employees to walk calmly out the door and clear of the building. The man shot no one, and the police took him into custody.

The following year, Belman cooked up an amazing project to ring out the old century. With input from readers, she compiled a quirky list of 100 people who played vital roles in shaping New Hampshire during the 20th century. Then she set out to lead the staff in profiling all 100 during 1999 – a rate of nearly two profiles a week on top of the regular workload.

This project, with its fresh looks at Carlton Fisk, Grace Metalious, David Souter, Steven Tyler, Christa McAuliffe and many others, became a book. Belman and I co-edited The New Hampshire Century and emceed a variety show at the Audi to celebrate its publication.

Because Belman has often been my editor over the years, I know why former Monitor journalists who now work for the Globe or the Washington Post or the New York Times say what they say about her.

In a nutshell the consensus is this: I like where I am, but I sure miss Felice.

Come tomorrow, the Monitor and its readers will miss her, too.

(Mike Pride can be reached at mpride@cmonitor.com.)


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