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Editorial Archives The Altamont Enterprise, March 9, 2006
From the editor
Lansing Christman, journalist and poet, was a man of true words
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
I knew Lansing Christman through his words. And what wonderful words they were. I never met the man, face to face, but I feel I knew his heart and soul because of the words he spoke to me and the words he wrote for our newspaper.
Lansing died March 1 at the age of 96.
"That’s the last of ’em from the old guard," said the Enterprise’s publisher, Jim Gardner, on hearing the news.
Jim, a printer, stopped his endless work for a moment to reflect. His press stood silent.
Jim had started working at the Enterprise print shop over a half-century ago, a half-dozen years after Lansing had left. But Lansing kept up his ties with The Enterprise.
"The first time I met Lansing was in 1955," said Jim. "He stopped by to talk to Howard," Jim said, referring to Howard Ogsbury, the long-time publisher, who lived over the print shop where the newsroom is now.
"Lansing was a New Deal Democrat and Howard was an old-guard Republican," said Jim, noting the current editor and publisher have similar political differences, "and I can remember some spirited debates on political issues."
Recalling Lansing as a newsman, Jim said, "He just had a level head on his shoulders. He was stable. He was dependable. He had a nose for news."
Lansing, who was the editor of The Enterprise during the Depression, wrote me from his home in South Carolina not long after I became editor.
He proposed writing a column. I didnt have a lot of hope for it, since I told him we were all about local news, but said Id give it a try. I thought, to myself, a man in his late eighties who had lived in the South for years, couldnt have much to write of local interest. I was wrong.
Lansing wrote prose that read like poetry clear and straight to the heart. Many of his columns, called "Countryside Gleanings," were based on his boyhood recollections of the area yet addressed universal themes.
Born and raised on a hill farm in Duanesburg, Lansing was the youngest of nine children seven boys and two girls. His father, W. W. Christman, was a poet.
Lansings essays were filled with rich descriptions of nature and farm life, from which he often drew lifes lessons but not in a preachy way; rather, as a simple matter of fact.
"Old barns are like old scribes," he wrote in one of his columns. "They write their rhythmic lines out in the fields far back from the road. They stand alone, surrounded by the land they once served. Theirs is a script that has lasted well, a chronology of life and time, a journal of the years, a record of harvests from the fields....
"I played in barns as a boy. I worked in them as a man. I rested in them on rainy Summer afternoons with the raindrops on the shingled roof sending me off to sleep while swallows chattered overhead."
In his late eighties and through his early nineties, Lansing would write his weekly column, without fail, for our newspaper. Each week, I put his column on the bottom of my editing pile, so I had a reward to look forward to. He ended each dispatch with a newsman’s "30."
Many of those columns were collected into a book, his third, Harp Strings in the Wind, published in 1998.
In the title essay, he tells of his daily journey to school in Altamont.
"As a boy, more than 70 years ago walking the tracks for a mile to the station to catch the train that took me to high school 10 miles away, I often heard the harp strings, that lyrical music played by the wind and the wires," he writes. "The wind, picking at the long lines of wire, was the refined and sensitive harpist."
Lansing noticed everyday things and made them poetic through the way he perceived and described them. His formal education ended with his graduation from Altamont High School.
"I would very much have liked to have gone to college," he told me. "There were no funds...I could have gone to Cornell and probably gotten some kind of scholarship. But I saw how much we had to struggle to make a living on the farm. I knew I’d never make a go of it...My next love was writing, so I followed that."
Lansing wrote for a Schenectady newspaper even before graduating from high school.
"When I started working on the paper, I was so young, I was afraid to use my own name," he recalled. "I used the name of an older brother."
He remembered being shy at the start of his reporting career and, while he wrote with ease, he found it "a burden" to interview people.
"To learn," he said, "I read every newspaper I could get my hands on...I covered everything from major accidents to anniversaries."
Lansing started at The Altamont Enterprise as a correspondent, covering Duanesburg when he as 17 years old. Seven years later, when he was 24, Publisher Ogsbury asked him to be the Enterprise editor.
"I never asked why he asked," said Lansing. "I just took the job. My father and I had finished harvest."
"Coverage of both sides"
Lansing took his notes longhand, but pounded out his stories, up until the very last, using two fingers, on an old Royal typewriter.
"I don’t think I could get used to one of those new-fangled computers," he told me during one of our phone conversations, which I grew to relish as much as reading his columns.
He had left The Enterprise, though, for the newest technology of the time. In 1947, he joined WGY-WRGB, radio and television, where he worked until 1966 as news director.
The Schenectady television station, one of the first in the country, got its FCC license and current call letters in honor of Walter Ransom Gail Barker, an early broadcaster in the 1940s. At the start of the decade, the Capital District had only 300 televisions, while there were over 2,000 by the close of the decade, and 300,000 by the middle of the 1950s.
In the midst of making sometimes hard news decisions, and feeling very much alone, I knew there was a comforting voice of experience only a phone call away.
In one such instance, Lansing reviewed the mission of The Enterprise for me in his day "to bring news to the areas in which the subscribers live." He went on, describing a philosophy I, too, held: "We’d record progress, and the tragedies, too." He emphasized that the important facts were covered but that the news was not sensationalized.
"If a controversial subject came up," said Lansing, "I insisted on coverage of both sides; I would not publish a biased report. I carried that same tradition with me into broadcasting."
He left for "the challenge," he said. "The opportunities looked great with radio and television; television was new," said Lansing, and he helped develop news programs and schedules from scratch.
He was not pleased with how local news was broadcast in recent years. "Don’t ask me what I think of news today," he said. "I can’t be quoted....Look how accidents are covered; the photographs of blood and guts; it kills me to see it on TV...I sometimes wonder if news on TV is inciting some of the problems we have."
"Part of my heart"
In his later years, Lansing gave up the burden of writing news for the pleasure of writing about nature and of composing poems.
He became the poet in residence at Shepherds Center in Spartanburg, South Carolina, his wifes home state, where he moved after retiring.
"News writing was a chore; this is a pleasure," he told me. "News was a necessity; this is part of my life, part of my heart."
Even during the years he earned his living by reporting on the news, he still wrote about nature and he still wrote poems.
"I was very fortunate," he said, "my father and my mother both loved nature and were conservationists."
More than 90 acres of the Christman family farm now belong to The Nature Conservancy.
"In my farm years," said Christman, "I was with nature, and, when I went to work in the office, I always made time in the evenings and on the weekends to spend hours with nature. It’s an important part of my life, which I never gave up," he said.
Lansing sold his first freelance piece, a poem, to The Christian Science Monitor in 1938. "I got $2 for that and I was at the top of the world," he recalled.
Later, The Monitor reviewed his work: "Lansing Christman’s writing delights by its utter freedom from artificial tension. It feels no need to woo jaded literary palates by spicing, dramatizing, or sensationalizing a subject too rich in itself to tolerate dressing up."
"During World War II, I wrote a great deal of poetry," said Christman, publishing it in, among other papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
"Stairway to my Winter in the stars"
His book, Harp Strings, is organized by seasons, as representations of the stages of his life. His outlook is not one of an old man bemoaning the end of his life, but rather that of a philosopher, gleaning from his boyhood on a Helderberg farm the richness of a life lived in harmony with nature.
"I have blended the three into a lyrical muse," he writes of his youthful spring years, ripening summer years, and reflective autumn years, "the merging of faith and hope, a union of the past and present, a blending of dreams, some lost, some gained."
He ends the essay on his "symphony of life," anticipating "the stairway to my Winter in the stars."
His philosophical view is interspersed with humor. In a summer essay, he recalls his first automobile ride, having before experienced only more leisurely rides in a horse-drawn buggy wagon.
A mortician who sold cars came to his family’s farm shortly after the first World War, and Lansing remembers being "more than a little apprehensive as this vehicle, without a team, chugged and plugged along, kicking up a trail of dust that eventually settled on the roadside grass and weeds."
He concludes, "It was a mortician who gave me my first automobile ride. And, without a doubt, it will be a mortician who gives me my last."
"Courtship by Pen"
Lansing also writes, in his springtime years, of his greatest use of the written word. He wooed the woman who would became his wife through letters.
"Courtship by Pen" describes nine years of letter-writing that preceded his meeting Lucile Skinner.
His older brother, Spencer, was married to Mae Blackwell, a South Carolinian, whom he had met during World War I while training at Camp Wadsworth. Lucile wrote her Aunt Mae, asking for the name of "some little boy up North" to write to.
"We’d write frequently, and there would be long lapses," Lansing told me. "First of all, we just wrote about the weather and activities and such...We got a touch of love as time went on."
After he graduated from high school, Lansing worked on a road-construction project to earn enough money for a car.
"I earned enough before the October crash on Wall Street to buy a car," he wrote. "I had withdrawn the funds just before the bank failed. I bought a new Model A Ford, one of the first Model A’s."
He drove nearly 1,000 miles to South Carolina. "I found the fields white, not with snow, but with cotton," he wrote. "That was my introduction to Dixie."
On first sight of Lucile, he wrote, "My world stopped, but not my heart. There she was, a beautiful dimpled blonde with a soft Southern accent and dialect that sang to my heart. I soared to the stars. I had met the girl who would become my wife."
Lucile Christman died in 1989, after more than 57 years of marriage to Lansing.
Lansings last book, Stitching Stars, a collection of poems written over the course of 70 years, beginning in the Depression during his years at The Enterprise, reads as an intimate tribute to his love for Lucile.
The book opens with a poem, "Some Greatest Dreams," first published in The New York Times, typical of his careful craftsmanship, his awareness of rhythm and structure.
The blank verse is two stanzas of five lines each that closely parallel each other:
Some of the greatest
songs ever sung
Have passed into
the oblivion of sleep
the singers were afraid
To sing aloud
The house was sleeping.
Some of the greatest
dreams ever dreamed
Have passed from life
Unreal, because the
dreamers were afraid
To dream aloud
The house was awakening.
The structure of the poem informs its meaning. By reading its meter, we see the poem is really two quatrains four lines of four feet each. The fourth line is split in half to emphasize the importance of the norm set by the house.
If everyone is sleeping, we dare not sing; if everyone is waking, we dare not dream.
This first poem is like a gauntlet thrown down by the poet. The "un"s reverberate unheard, unlived, unknown, unreal.
Lansing answers the challenge in the pages that follow as he did in the chapters of his life.
He dares to sing; he dares to dream; he dares to write. He is a poet.
I am glad I have his words, now that he is gone, to hold close to me. They will keep me from burying my dreams in slumber or in fear.
Accepting a hug
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
In a 2002 review of Lansings Christmas book of poems, Stitching Stars, I wrote:
In our society, we tend to think of love and passion as belonging to the young. We are bombarded with images in ads, on television, and in movies so frequently that eroticism has lost some of its punch. Love-making no longer seems personal or individual or powerful.
Lansing Christman, who is 92 years old, has published a slender volume of love poems that recharges the meaning of love....
How do we know this is poetry" It isn’t just the shapes of the lines on the page that tell us. It’s the way the words make us feel.
Emily Dickinson wrote in the 19th Century, "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way"""
How do I know a poem"
I feel compelled to read it out loud. I can read news stories and novels and philosophical treatises silently to myself. And I can read rhymes and doggerel and Hallmark greeting cards silently to myself.
But a poem has words I need to hear; I need to feel their force as they are uttered.
When I was young, I read all of Shakespeares plays out loud to my unborn child. I was studying for my doctoral exams, but couldnt contain myself in silence. It was poetry; and, besides, I had a captive audience.
Recently, Ive read some of Christmans words to my husband; they are the kind of poems you want to read to someone you love.
Lansing responded to the review with a typewritten note "Lissa: You would accept a hug of appreciation, wouldn’t you" followed by a column.
His column began by asking, "What is poetry""
He answered himself, "The hills are filled with it. So are the valleys and flatlands, the forests and streams, the birds and the flowers. I see poetry. I hear it, and feel it."
He ended with words I shall always treasure:
"Yes, I served as Editor of The Enterprise more than 60 years ago. But I can say without reservation that no editor of the paper has come close to matching the superb ability of Melissa Hale-Spencer"Her talent shines like the sparkle of the stars in the skies!"
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