There was no such thing as telecommuting when the Blizzard of ’78 struck. So Nelson Benton knew the only way to get that day’s newspaper out was to somehow make his way to the office of The Salem Evening News in downtown Salem.
Benton strapped on a pair of skis, made the 2-mile trek from his home in North Salem, and wrote his story.
It was that kind of dedication that marked the journalism career of Benton, the longtime reporter and editor at The Salem News who died Friday at the age of 66 at his home in Surprise, Arizona, after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Benton worked for The Salem News for 40 years, from 1972 until his retirement in 2012, serving as an independent voice advocating for open government and the best interests of residents of the North Shore.
“To me, as a kid growing up in Peabody and reading the paper every day, he was The Salem News,” Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said.
Benton began his career as an intern covering Middleton hired fresh out of the University of Maine. He moved up to become city editor, managing editor and then editorial page editor, accumulating sources in every community on the North Shore and a Rolodex that was the envy of other reporters.
His career spanned sweeping changes in the newspaper industry, from typewriters to Twitter, and he remained a steady and trusted voice throughout.
“Nelson goes back to the day when some of the editorial staff were larger-than-life figures,” Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll said. “Back then it was the Salem Evening News and when the orange flag went up at the booth in Riley Plaza, that meant the newspaper was out. It was the heyday for sure. And Nelson knew every selectman in Marblehead and who was on the water and sewer commission, because he talked to them all.”
For most of his career, including in his retirement in Arizona, Benton wrote a 600-word column on the Friday Opinion page, a mix of inside local politics and sometimes biting criticism that was considered must reading. His institutional knowledge of the North Shore served as a valuable resource for younger reporters and provided perspective and context for readers.
Benton once traveled to Washington, D.C., to cover hearings regarding the South Essex Sewerage District treatment plant in Salem. His editorials captured the resilient spirit of the Danversport neighborhood that was leveled by a chemical plant explosion on Thanksgiving eve in 2006. His focus on mismanagement at the Essex Regional Retirement Board helped lead to the ouster of the chairman in 2009.
Benton was the public face of the newspaper, attending countless chamber breakfasts and award dinners, moderating political debates, and overseeing the selection of the Salem News Student-Athlete Award.
“He was the best local journalist I’ve ever worked with,” said Karen Andreas, regional publisher of the North of Boston Media Group, which publishes The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times. “There was no one like him. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. We couldn’t go to lunch anywhere on the North Shore without people wanting to talk politics with him.”
Benton became close to some of the people he wrote about, but always maintained an independence that kept the reader’s interests in mind. Both Blodgett and former Salem police Chief Bob St. Pierre said they would often call Benton for advice.
“He knew how to separate friendship from doing the job and I respected him for that,” said St. Pierre, who first got to know Benton when their children played soccer on Salem Common. “He was always straight-forward. He was honest with you. He didn’t always report things the way I would have liked, but he was always fair.”
“I really trusted him,” Blodgett said. “To me, Nelson — and I think he would consider this a compliment and would smile at it — was old school. He got his facts straight. Even if he was critical in an editorial, he was fair.”
While Benton could be tough in his reporting and editorializing, he pulled it off in a friendly manner. He started almost every day by swimming at the YMCA and would be in the newsroom by 5 a.m. He could often be heard listening patiently to a reader or official on an early-morning telephone call before ending it with an abrupt, “Gotta go.”
“In those wee hours of the morning when most of us were crawling out of bed he was already getting scoops,” said Tom Dalton, a retired Salem News reporter. “He was really the public face of The Salem News. He was The Salem News.”
Benton not only offered up his own opinions, but curated an editorial page that included a wide range of voices ranging from Barbara Anderson and Brian Watson to Jim McAllister and David Shribman.
Benton was born in Jamaica, New York, and lived the first 14 years of his life in the Philippines, where his father worked as a manager for the Singer Sewing Machine Co.
His family moved back to the United States and settled in Danvers, where he met his future wife, Laurie. Nelson and Laurie were high school sweethearts, graduated from Danvers High School in 1969, and both went to college at the University of Maine at Orono. They took accelerated courses so they could finish in three years and get married.
They eventually settled in Peabody and raised two sons. Todd Benton lives in Surprise, Arizona, with his wife, Erin, and their daughters, Eliana, 13, and Emilee, 8. Timothy Benton lives in Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey, with his wife, Laurie, and their sons, T.J., 5, and Brady Nelson, 7 months.
“He absolutely loved his job and he loved The Salem News,” said Laurie Benton, who was a longtime school teacher in Salem. “He was always happy doing whatever job there was to do in the newsroom. He knew that it was a gift to have a job you love.”
Benton, who was married to Laurie for 46 years, never missed a sporting event of his sons or grandchildren, she said.
“He was just a master at juggling everything,” Laurie Benton said. “He loved his family so much, and everything he did, he did well. He was very special.”
In 2008, Benton earned the prestigious Yankee Quill Award, considered the highest individual honor awarded by fellow journalists in the region, from the New England Society of Newspaper Editors. He was also inducted into the New England Newspaper Press Association Hall of Fame.
His last column for The Salem News was published Oct. 18, when he commented on everything from Hamilton Town Meeting’s rejection of an affordable housing project to a historic designation for the iconic Almy’s sign in Salem.
The sign, Benton wrote, “should stay around forever.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or email@example.com.