Valley Lives - Art Mantell
The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the August 07, 2013 issue. Reprinted with permission.
Lifelong newsman knew starting his own paper was good way to get last word
by Nikki Mantell
Art Mantell was a life-long newsman.
He would never use the word "journalist." He didn't go to journalism school. He got his first job in 1955 by mouthing off, as he regularly did, to a collection of Brandon Sun reporters lunching at his father's popular cafe of the same town. Serving coffee from behind the counter, he told one of them he got the story all wrong.
The response was along the lines of: "Oh yeah, Mantell? Why don't you give it a try?"
He started as a reporter, moved up the ranks and eventually got his own daily column. He was fired a couple of years later, a fact he was quite proud of, when he mentioned that the crown prosecutor in a criminal trial had "coached the witness." The prosecutor and the paper's publisher were both high-ranking members of the reigning Conservative party. And there's the fact that Art was also at the top of the pay scale.
His next job again found him when a reporter buddy put him on to an opening at the Ottawa Journal. By that time, Art had a wife, Kitty, and a daughter, Alexis, and they packed up and headed east.
At the Journal, he covered the kind of stories he loved: crashes, bridge collapses and anything with human drama.
Perhaps his favourite was his story on the Beacon Hotel fire. While other reporters swarmed like bees to catch the firefighters and take photos of the raging flames, Art noticed a lone man making his way down from the third-storey on a ladder, unnoticed by the rest. On the ground, Art managed to get a heart-pounding first-person interview, but before he got his name, the man dropped dead on the spot. No name meant no story. Art dug into a pocket and found the man's wallet and ID, a technique not taught in Journalism school.
His first editor said he had crossed the line; colleagues considered the story to be in bad taste. But the it ran front page and the man's family later wrote the Journal a letter to say how much they loved the piece because the reporter had caught their relative's personality so accurately ("It sounded just like him, that's just how he talked").
With a family to support, and a mortgage on a five-acre property in Chelsea (one of the area's quaint garage-convertedto-cottage-converted-to-house types) Art took a better paying government job with the National Research Council as a media relations specialist.
But newspapering remained his first love, and so after five years of being, in his own words, "terminally bored" in the civil service, he started his own newspaper.
Opening such a business in the Gatineau Hills in 1973 made no sense.
There were no real businesses to speak of, residents were hidden away in the forest, and Art's only mode of communication was Bell's shared party line. But Art was never about practicality or spreadsheets.
He convinced Kitty, a parliamentary librarian with an innate talent for writing, to start "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" with him. When he thought up that pun, one of many to follow on his pages, Art laughed so hard he nearly drove off the road.
The News, as it was called then, was a Mom and Pop operation with Kitty as Publisher, Art as Editor and elder daughter, Alexis, as Circulation Manager delivering papers to the 10 or so stores, which were convinced to sell it.
They put out the first edition on the kitchen table using Letraset to make headlines letter by letter, and typed out copy on an IBM electric typewriter. Kitty worked the phones, gathering news tips and writing stories from Chelsea to Kaz. They developed photos in their tiny bathroom; baby Nikki's job was to ruin every second set by opening the door. The Worst Joke of the Week has run on every front page since that first edition. "It was handcrafted and it showed it," Art wrote once. Kitty squealed with joy when she saw someone had actually paid the 15 cents and came out of the Kirk's Ferry general store, copy in hand.
The newspaper was a great adventure, and a combination of Art's main loves: news, entrepreneurial ventures, and his family. He and Kitty agreed they would throw $2,000 into the paper, and when that ran out they'd shut it down. It never made much money, but it allowed him to quit his NRC job after another few years.
Art loved writing about all the colourful characters that populated the Gatineau Hills, and he, himself, grew to be one of them.
Art liked to use his land, and his family, to launch various business schemes: he raised chickens, which he then sold, live, at the Byward Market; he and Kitty bred and sold Bouvier des Flandres puppies; and later on down the road, he launched Man with the Axe tree-felling service with Alcove's Jeb Anderson; fancying himself an impresario, he brought much-lauded comedy duo, Bowser and Blue, to Wakefield; and his joke book, "Worst Jokes of the Millennium" is still available for purchase. Sadly, other projects like "Rent-a-Duck" proved not to have wings.
He launched three other newspapers in those years - the still flourishing Aylmer Bulletin, and two other now-defunct bilingual monthlies. Put bluntly, he hated Aylmer, loved the Hills, and eventually sold all but The Low Down.
Over the years, Art had his fans and his enemies. In fact, making enemies was part of newspapering, he thought. As he told me during my years as publisher, "If they're mad at you, you're doing your job. It means they're reading you."
He hated the moniker "community paper." He ran a big city daily that just happened to be a small rural weekly. The bake sales were covered, but just because the mayor was your neighbour, didn't mean she she didn't get grilled. (Actually, in Judy Grant's case, she was the neighbour who became a Low Down reporter, then editor, then quit to join the competition and eventually later became mayor of Chelsea. She routinely told The Low Down to "screw off.")
In 1998, after 25 years of putting out his labour of love, Art retired and sold the paper to me (although he remained involved right until the very end). That transition year marked the paper's biggest news coup to date: the infamous visit from Art's all-time favourite enemy: a female officer of the Office de la langue francaise (OLF). We photographed her measuring the size of English signage next door to our office - she demanded we turn over those photos "or else."
It was so beautiful. Together we crowed how this story was manna from newspaper heaven - so clearly a David vs. Goliath story. It was so black and white, and it would be read all over.
Of course, we thumbed our noses at the OLF for three weeks on our front pages, garnering support from all over. Art fielded non-stop calls from reporters as far away as Japan - I did the interviews. Never has a father-and-daughter news team had so much fun.
Art injected fun and humour into The Low Down wherever possible. Headlines such as "You can't take a leek in Gatineau Park," has been stolen by many a national newspaper. The more recent "Is that a Cannon or are you just glad to see me" above a photo of a warm meeting between politicians Hillary Clinton and Lawrence Cannon was also his, and nearly won a national award.
Art had a knack for finding great pleasure in the small, every day things around him. King of his five-acre riverside property, he roamed it on summer days in nothing but his lava-lava wrap he bought in Hawaii where he had eloped with Kitty in 1961. He devised his own family traditions such as "Leaf Catching Day," when every fall he challenged his kids to catch one midair - the specific one he pointed out - at 25 cents a leaf. The lawn was uneven and strewn with logs and dog poop. The ensuing falls were hugely entertaining for him, somewhat profitable for us. He once wrote a comedy routine starring his two big toes.
Art was fiercely proud of his daughters and loved them unreservedly He thought Kitty a talented writer and broadcaster, and he relied on her as a full, committed partner in business and in life.
Arguing was his favourite sport and a few years ago he got great pleasure from a tight band of coffee club buddies - Martti Lahtinen and the late Don Chartrand. They met thrice weekly for some verbal thrust and parry.
Art read three newspapers a day, every day. He was still writing editorials for us until the last month of his life.
Three days before Art died, he and Alexis were one-upping the National Post, rewriting its headlines from his hospital bed. If he were still around, he'd probably tell us we got the story all wrong on this piece too. Share your memories of Art Mantell at lowdownononline.com.
Art Mantell's gone, but his dream lives on
by Judy Grant
Art Mantell was a man with a dream - a dream of publishing a small weekly newspaper for the Gatineau Hills; a newspaper to keep the local folks informed of the who, what, where, when of local news.
His dream came true.
Art was extremely proud of his "small" weekly, which has flourished and grown from the 12 pages it was back in the '70s, to a "bible" which keeps local and not-so-local people, aware and informed.
Art Mantell is gone, but his dreams live on.
I started working for Art way back in the '70s. I met him on our road one day and he asked me how I liked the newspaper. I told him it was okay, but that he never covered any sports in the area. "You want sports," he said, "then you better come to work and write them."
As of that day, I began my career as, first a columnist, then a reporter and eventually the editor of The News.
A MAN WITH A VISION
Working with Art was an experience.
Every day Art had a vision of a new project he had thought of starting and we would hash over the pros and cons of his latest brainwave. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't, but life was never dull around the office.
Every morning I would walk down Maxwell Road and up the driveway to the Mantell house. I went through the kitchen and up the back stairs to the office over the bedroom. Nothing was private for Kitty and Art.
I developed pictures in their bathroom and poor Kitty never enjoyed a cup of coffee alone in her own kitchen without a steady stream of traffic. But working with Art was great. He pushed for stories and turned more and more of the writing over to me.
I shared the space in the newspaper each week with a steady stream of columnists: Anne Ginns, Murray Orlando, Marilyn Liddiard, Irma Peck, Grant Kelly and photographer Barry Swerdfeger, to mention only a few.
I also shared the paper with Gaye Snow, another of Art's brainwaves, which became a roaring success. Gaye Snow became a popular gossip columnist and Art chuckled every time she appeared in print.
For years, Yvonne Gervais, an advertising set-up person, and myself trudged up those stairs to fight with the temperamental light table and those ever dull knives.
In those days, getting the news ready for print was a major feat. Each line and each column was laid out by hand. It also had to be proof read, which was mostly Art's job. The misprints, spelling errors and crooked lines were all part of the charm of The News, or so Art said.
WONDERFUL AVENUE FOR ENTREPRENEURS
The newspaper also became a wonderful avenue for local entrepreneurs to advertise or have a short story written to announce their start-up.
Take Jeb Anderson for example. I remember when Art called him to remove some trees and by the time Jeb left, Art had titled him the Man With The Axe and given him the phone number of 827-tree, tree, tree, tree. (3-3-3-3). To this day, Jeb is still the Man With The Axe. Art was always thinking and most of his ideas were pretty brilliant.
The "Worst Joke of the Week," another of Art's brilliant ideas, became a book - a collection of all the jokes he'd run on his front pages each week.
Art was also referred to as "feisty" - I couldn't think of a better adjective to describe him. He was feisty, but he was bright, a fountain of information and a wonderful listener who forgot nothing.
The Low Down to Hull and Back Again News had many followers. Many headlines from the paper were picked up and reprinted across the country. A particularly famous one was, "You can't take a leek in Gatineau Park."
I told you he was brilliant.
Art and Kitty Mantell, and their two wonderful daughters, Alexis and Nikki, continue to leave a legacy which will long be remembered.
Thanks Art... I will never forget you.
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