The space race with the Soviet Union was nearing a fever pitch in 1959 when The Observer joined what is today Western Communications Corporation, three years before astronaut John Glenn made history as the first American to orbit the earth.
Today The Observer’s link to Western Communications is still intact — but not for long. In less than three days, the connection will vanish like a meteor flaming out in the earth’s atmosphere.
The Observer, owned by Western Communications, Inc., of Bend the past four decades, will have a new parent company beginning July 1. EO Media Group will acquire The Observer Monday under terms of a bankruptcy liquidation sale announced earlier this month. The sale was approved Thursday.
Betsy McCool, one of Robert Chandler’s daughters and chair of Western Communications, a family-owned corporation, said she is unhappy to be losing The Observer.
“Our family feels close to (The Observer) because it was (one of) our first (Western Communications newspapers). It will be sad not to be a part of it anymore,” said McCool, who is also publisher of The Bulletin in Bend.
Western Communications has owned The Observer since the mid-1970s, but its actual connection extends back to 1959 when Robert Chandler and John McLelland purchased The Observer. Chandler, who died in 1996, was then the owner of the Bulletin, and McClelland’s family ran the Longview (Washington) Daily News.
Chandler, reflecting 37 years later on his decision to buy the La Grande newspaper, wrote in a 1996 column that it was not only a good business decision, but also reflected a commitment to community journalism. He referred to a statement McClelland made to the La Grande Chamber of Commerce in the 1960s to make this point.
“We didn’t buy the newspaper because it was cheap, because it wasn’t by newspaper standards of the day. Nor did we buy it expecting things to always run along the same old way, we knew we were going to provide new quarters, new equipment and a larger staff,” McClelland had told the chamber.
Chandler purchased McClelland’s share of The Observer in 1969. Less than a decade later, Chandler founded Western Communications, the majority of whose stockholders have been members of his immediate family throughout its history.
McCool said her father enjoyed visiting La Grande, just as she does.
“I would not mind living there someday. It is so beautiful and there is so much history,” she said. “I love it out there.”
She said The Observer is like many newspapers Western Communications has purchased and operated.
“It is a community newspaper in a beautiful area,” McCool said, adding that Western Communications’ papers have also been in relatively isolated areas where it is easier to capture the market.
The Observer’s longest serving publisher during its stint with Western Communications was Bob Moody. Chandler named Moody The Observer’s publisher in 1973, and he served through 1997. So successful was Moody that he was inducted into the Oregon Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2005.
McCool said Moody was a favorite of her father’s.
“He stood up to him as an equal and told him what he thought. My dad really respected that. They had a great relationship,” she said.
Chandler, who was inducted posthumously into the Oregon Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2006, made frequent trips to Western Communications’ newspapers, including those in La Grande, Baker City, Burns, Redmond and Crescent City, California. McCool said he enjoyed getting out of the office and talking about the newspaper industry.
“He was a very social person,” McCool said. “He loved the newspaper business and really liked the business end of it.”
Chandler also embraced the opportunity to speak with members of the communities Western Communications’ newspapers served.
He liked to see that people working at Western Communications’ newspapers had a big presence in their communities. This was apparent in a story about Moody that appeared in the May 16, 1996, edition of The Observer. Chandler recalled in the story that he used to fly a plane to La Grande. One time when he came to visit he had sent word of his arrival by radio and asked the airport officials to call The Observer for someone to come and pick him up.
When Chandler arrived at the airport, no one from the paper was there, so he started walking into town. A motorist stopped and offered him a ride into town. He asked Chandler where he was going and Chandler told him, “The Observer.”
Chandler said he asked the driver who owns The Observer.
“Oh, Mr. Moody,” the man replied. Chandler then recalled, “I didn’t bother to correct him because I’m delighted for people to think he’s the owner.”
The Observer, prior to being taken under the wings of Chandler in 1959, was owned by Fred Waybret, a California state senator. Waybret purchased The Observer in 1942, according to an Oct. 21, 1996, story in The Observer on local newspaper history by the late La Grande historian Jack Evans.
This means that since 1942, The Observer has essentially had just two owners, Weybret and, later, Chandler and his family. The first 48 years of The Observer’s history, though, were far less stable in terms of ownership continuity.
The newspaper’s publisher when its first edition came off the press on Oct. 20, 1896, was George Hoskins Currey, a graduate of La Grande’s old Blue Mountain University. Currey put out the paper with a press acquired from a defunct Baker City paper named The Blade. Currey’s brother Fred B. joined him at The Observer in the summer of 1897, after which the newspaper began listing its publisher as the Currey Brothers.
The Observer was purchased by Bruce Dennis in 1910. Dennis had been editor of the Baker City Herald. In 1914, he sold The Observer to newspaperman Clarke Leiter, who according to Evans, improved The Observer’s look.
“He had worked at The Oregonian and contributed to its metropolitan appearance,” Evans wrote.
Ownership of The Observer changed hands again in 1918 when Dennis purchased it back from Leiter. Seven years later, Dennis sold the newspaper again, this time to Frank B. Appleby and Harvey Matthews. The Observer was then located at 1710 Sixth St., in a building they would replace in dramatic fashion in 1928 with a two-story structure that would house the newspaper the next 56 years.
Evans described the new buliding as “a handsome brick structure,” which was designed by Charles B. Miller, a local architect. The Observer was temporarily located on Adams Avenue just east of the old Sacajawea Hotel when The Observer’s new home was being constructed. The new building at 1710 Sixth St. served as The Observer’s home until 1985, when The Observer moved into its present location at 1406 Fifth St. The current building was constructed in 1984, and the building at 1710 Sixth St. was later torn down.
Appleby and Matthews, after constructing the building on Sixth Street, sold the newspaper to P.R. Finlay in 1930. The next ownership change was in 1942 when Waybret purchased The Observer.
Coincidentally, that was the same year Chandler visited La Grande for the first time, while working for United Press, the telegraph news service then used by small town afternoon newspapers.
What Chandler saw in La Grande in 1942 piqued his interest, sowing the seeds for what would be a memorable and overall successful 60-year relationship.