Bruce Montgomery, former publisher of The Block Island Times, dies at 78

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 9:30am
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Royal Bruce Montgomery, publisher of The Block Island Times from 1999 to 2006, and editorial cartoonist since 1998, died on Thursday, July 5, at the age of 78. His obituary appears on page 22. The Block Island Times reached out to Montgomery’s friends and former colleagues, who offered their impressions of the man they knew.

Renée Meyer, writer and accountant

It was just a few weeks after Bruce Montgomery took over as publisher of The Block Island Times in 1999 that I received a phone call. Bruce needed help — accounting help. And so it began that I would spend each Friday afternoon for the next six years, in the back of the office at a computer set up for me right next to where Bruce worked.

While I would work on bank deposits and accounts payable, Bruce would work on the layout of the next week’s paper, inserting his cartoon drawings of gulls here and there, designing and tweaking ads, and scheming about such things as the next April Fools’ Day issue.

Friday afternoons were not always easy for Bruce. The paper came on the 10 o’clock boat. He would distribute it himself. By the time he got back to the office, calls were already coming in about this or that in the paper. Sometimes there would be visits from angry advertisers, annoyed — even furious — that they had gotten called out for some sort of transgression.

Bruce listened patiently to all the complaints and dissenting opinions, which as everyone who has ever lived on Block Island knows, are not few and far between. I expanded my list of weekly tasks to include trying to make Bruce laugh.

Bruce loved working with young people and through the years many would pass through, staying for a year, or two, or three, writing and editing on their way to and from other gigs. Putting out a weekly paper was serious work, but he made sure we always had fun and felt appreciated. He even indulged us in a most serious research project, for the benefit of our readers, of course, on which restaurant on the mainland had the best Chinese food. It was winter, just before Chinese New Year’s. We ordered the same five dishes from three restaurants near the ferry, and two that deliver to Block Island by plane. Betsy Littlefield, who did copy editing at the time, made sure that no one would know which dish came from which restaurant, and that our evaluations were done and compiled in a scientific manner. Pippa Jack wrote up the findings for the paper. Bruce took pictures.

I don’t remember how long it was before I wrote my first column. It was an unsolicited “Writer’s Block” column on gardening. Read Kingsbury did the editing, told me I was a great writer, and then gave me a lesson on the difference between “which” and “that.” 

Before long, Bruce was feeding me ideas on what to write next. We collaborated on articles for holiday issues, House & GardenThe Wedding Issue, and eventually The Summer Times. It was just a few days before his passing that I was reflecting on the fact that he was the only one who ever would even think to invite ‘the accountant’ into the creative realm of a business.

His most frequent criticism of a piece I had written was: “You need a get-out line.”

So here is mine, Bruce: “I will be forever grateful.”

Stacey Longo, writer

Back in 1998, The Block Island Times was looking for new columnists. My dream was to be a writer, and I submitted some column samples and waited anxiously for a response. It came. “No thanks,” the then-editor said. “I just don’t think people will get your sense of humor.”

Any aspiring (and even established) writer can tell you that with this career choice often comes crippling self-doubt. Maybe I should give up, I thought. I’m starting to suspect I’m not as funny as I think I am.

Some months later, Royal Bruce Montgomery bought the paper, and again they were looking for columnists. Erica Tonner recalled my submissions, and suggested he might want to take a look. He did, and gave me what stands out as the single best moment in my entire writing career: He called me up out of the blue in December 1999. “I want you to come write for me,” he said.

Again, any writer can tell you that never happens. Because of it, I loved him instantly.

My weekly goals became focused on two things: meet my deadline, and make Royal Bruce laugh. And what a laugh: Bruce had a low, rumbling chuckle that delighted the ears. He was funny and brilliant and didn’t take anyone — least of all himself — too seriously.

Bruce Montgomery gave me the confidence I sorely lacked, that people would want to read the things I wrote. Two decades later, my writing career is going strong. Yet to this day, I still associate success with the sweetest sound of all: Royal Bruce’s laugh.

Godspeed, my mentor and friend.

Abby Fox, writer

My perspective on Bruce Montgomery is probably pretty different from many Block Islanders because I knew him first and foremost as my employer. 

I suspect I saw some sides of him many others did not, but I also didn't know him as his neighbors or peers did either.

My interest in working for The Block Island Times began and ended with Bruce Montgomery. He was the one who picked me up one January day in early 2004 at the ferry and took me to lunch at Bethany's diner to meet the then-Editor-in Chief, Pippa Jack, for an informal interview.

After an introduction to these two smart, funny, instantly likable people I wanted nothing more than to be hired as a reporter at the Block Island Times; and my wish was granted.

I also remember the day, a couple of years later, when I heard he was leaving the paper, turning the reins over to Fraser and Betty Lang, and I remember thinking, and telling Bruce, well, it looked like it was time for me to go, too.

Where did my devout loyalty to "Royal" Bruce come from? 

Several things: his love of humor and of eccentric characters — and Block Island afforded him plenty of both; his tolerance and open-mindedness, including the wide berth he gave reporters, photographers, columnists, and other staff to work as they pleased; and his appreciation and cultivation of the best of Block Island, such as Scott Comings, one of many friendly collaborators who was always a welcome walk-in at the Times office. 

Most personally (and most selfishly), I will always be grateful that he gave this rather conventional sheltered girl from the Northern Virginia suburbs a shot at a more interesting, off-the-beaten-path life when I had just graduated from college and still only had the faintest idea about who I was and where I was going. For whatever reason, he was in favor of having an unpromising person like me at The Times; and I am very thankful for my time there.

Everyone who knew Bruce had an opinion about him; he was that kind of community figure. I will always think of him warmly, as a benefactor and frankly, something of a father figure. Bruce hated sentiment and gushy feelings so I will refrain from any here, and just say, Bruce, it's doubtful you believed in or worried much about the hereafter, but allow me, if you don't mind, to imagine you in the atmosphere somewhere, having a strong delicious cocktail and a hearty laugh with your doppelganger Kurt Vonnegut, still shaking your head in ever-curious delight about those strange human beings who shared their earth space with you. XO

P.S. Wood, former publisher of The Block Island Times

When I heard the shocking news that Bruce Montgomery was gone, my first thought was that it meant the end of his cartoons in The Block Island Times, my old newspaper. They have been a staple of the editorial page, opposite another staple, Martha Ball, for so long that I rather imagined it had been, as with Martha, my good taste that first put him there. Not at all. When I consulted the library archive, it showed that his distinctive pen and and provocative captions appeared for the first time in 1998, the year I sold the paper.

With that comeuppance, I was faintly reminded that Montgomery may actually have submitted some material to me before that, and that I had deemed it too personal for a community small as ours, where everyone knew everyone else. The new owner of The Times, Jeffrey McDonough of Jamestown, happily showed no such constraint. So there it was on the editorial page of Jan. 3, 1998, that first cartoon bearing the small signature in a corner, Royal Bruce. And there, thank goodness, his drawings and his wit have continued to appear for two decades and three different publishers.

My failure to have been the first to put him there I count as my biggest editorial mistake. Royal Bruce, with his shock of unruly hair, in cartoon and in reality, echoing his carefree disregard for conventional niceties, has proved just the sort of spice a small town weekly needs.

His presence among us will be greatly missed. 

Michael Schroeder, current publisher of The Block Island Times

Bruce has always added so much to the paper, in words and design, and of course through his cartoons. As publisher, he improved the paper, made it his own, added new voices and talent, some of whom are still writing for the paper today. His heart was on the island and he showed it on page three of the paper every week.

Elizabeth Perkins Stone, editor

My first memory of Bruce Montgomery went back to before I knew he would someday be my boss at The Block Island Times.

I started noticing this man on the boat going over and back – a man who bore a startling resemblance to Mark Twain.    The hair, the eyebrows, the face, his stature  and how he carried himself with an understated dignity of importance. He was difficult not to notice among the regulars and tourists. 

Then we, here at the paper, heard we were getting a new publisher. Another one. What fresh hell would this bring?

His name was Royal Bruce Montgomery. Royal Bruce?

He came to the newsroom — I was the managing editor at the time —  I couldn’t believe it: Royal Bruce turned out to be my Mark Twain from the boat.

What was he about? A background in journalism or publishing? What did he want to do with our paper? Suck the advertising revenue and life out it? Would he make changes? Would we have jobs?  Would he allow us to do our jobs as journalists? 

We learned about his work in advertising in New York, his cartooning and connection with “School House Rock.” We quickly learned that he was very, very funny.  And that he would be living on the island. And … that he clearly was no hands-off publisher. He worked at the paper. Every day he was here working with us, from the Friday morning staff meetings where the staff would go over my prepared addenda and the meeting would go off agenda into gossip and jokes as we all fed on each other’s ideas and we had our orders for the week, to press day, Thursday.

Press day — before the technology of the interwebs — I never looked forward to. The stress of deadline at 5 p.m and how to squeeze everything in if we were tight or to pound out some copy or enlarge some photos to fill the space. Bruce was there, the captain of our little ship of fools, keeping the ship on tack and avoiding the shoals of getting sidetracked over minor disputes or proper word usage, which could go a few rounds. (Read Kingsbury and I once had at it over the adjective  “dracronian” relative to a council action.) Sometimes he kept us from outright fighting with each other — a command to knock it off — and we did. 

But as soon as the paper went to press, and we cleaned up the detritus of production in the office, Bruce would direct the whole production to the Beachead for the weekly post-press party, the details of which I am not at liberty to disclose until of the statute of limitations runs. 

He cared about the product, if you can call putting out news a product. And he cared about the people who worked for him. He brought the staff to newspaper conventions. We started to win awards, although the first year he brought home the only award — for his cartooning. 

One image burned in my brain is that of Bruce in his stocking feet and bathrobe in a hotel hallway in Boston. It was the NEAPA convention. A midnight fire alarm had us all out of our rooms and most of us had pajamas on. As we looked to him for instructions on whether to treat this as an emergency and head down, I could not take my eyes off his socks.  Black dress socks. Did Bruce sleep in black dress socks? Or did he pause for few seconds during what might have been an actual emergency to put his back dress socks on?

Who knows?

But it was a little strange after that experience, seeing your boss and your co-workers all in their underwear and then back to the newsroom where we generally worked with our clothes on. Perhaps it was an odd bonding experience in his first year as publisher — the newspaper convention, Bruce bringing an award home for us and that oddest of staff meetings ever held in the dimly lit hallway of a Boston hotel, alarms blaring and us in our pajamas and Royal Bruce Montgomery in his black dress socks.

Lars Trodson, editor

Not long after I arrived at the paper Bruce and Peggy had me over for cocktails. Just as we were settling down, Bruce and Peggy said they had some gifts. One of the items in the bag was a cartoon Bruce had drawn that was titled, “Welcome, Lars!” and it depicts Bruce sitting at a bar talking to a defecating gull. 

Bruce says to the bird, “I hear there’s a new editor of The Block Island Times.” I thought surely some great compliment would follow. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” asks the bird. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it at the time, but of course I do now. During the course of the next five-plus years, I would receive emails about the previous night’s meeting, or some bit of news Bruce felt I should know about, or just plain gossip. I was amazed at how much island news seemed to be heard in Vero Beach before it reached Bridge Gate Square. But those emails, just like the cartoon, were meant to keep me on my toes. He’s been a silent partner with me all these years, just nudging me along, helpfully, gently, gently. The last time I saw him was when he came into the office, a week or so before he died, to give me a disc of cartoons that he would call a “stash” so we could keep running fresh cartoons even though he would be away. In that beautiful handwriting of his he wrote, gently, helpfully, hopefully: “I have three new ones in the works, for delivery by Saturday. Then I’m off to Canada until August 8… or so.”

Jane Anderson Vercelli, writer

Bruce Montgomery said he bought The Block Island Times so that he could continue to be the newspaper’s cartoonist.  

And what a cartoonist he was.  

In his whimsical illustrations and in the captions he wrote to go with them, he used his observations of islanders and island life to make humorous comments and often, to poke fun at himself. 

No matter how weighty the topic, Bruce saw the lighter side. 

His cartoons brought a comic touch to issues such as the over-population of deer, summer traffic, the seasonal need for bicycle paths, the arrival of tourists in droves and the relief at seeing them leave, and even the sensitive subject of a mainlander’s desire to be buried on Block Island. 

In an hour-long interview in 2005, Bruce recalled the first time he and his wife, Peg, took the ferry from New London and came to the island for July 4 in 1967. They stayed at the Wayside Inn, more recently known as The Gables II.

The next morning, they awoke to thick fog and white surf. The scene reminded Bruce of an Edward Hopper painting. 

The second weekend they visited Block Island they started looking for a house. Many visits later, in 1975, they bought a house they first saw in 1973.  

Fast forward to 1997. Kevin Weaver was running The Block Island Times for an off-island owner when Bruce said he started doing one cartoon a month. 

“The cartoons were well received so I started doing them once a week,” he said.

When the paper came up for sale, Bruce said he was afraid that if someone else bought the paper, he would no longer be the cartoonist. 

“So I bought the paper,” he said. It was November 1999.

Bruce said he trusted the people on the staff, including Read Kingsbury, Pippa Jack, and Peter Voskamp, to handle news coverage in a balanced way, thereby freeing him to focus on advertising.  

In 2001, Peg took charge of proofreading the ads, among other duties related to advertising. After that, Bruce said, the advertising doubled and doubled again.

Bruce’s drawings appeared not only as stand-alone cartoons that entertained but also as illustrations for ads that informed readers both visually and verbally. His sense of style extended to choosing special fonts. 

With so many expressions of creativity, including little drawings in unexpected places, the newspaper was a visual feast for readers, but what was the essence of the artistic consistency?

Bruce said the key was the single-handed nature of his role. 

“I do all of it. Except for about three accounts that have advertising agencies, all the ads are done by me. I have to make them all look different, but it’s all done by one person taking the photos, writing the copy, doing the drawing,” he said. 

Having moved to Block Island full-time in retirement after a successful career in advertising, what was the source of his greatest satisfaction and his greatest frustration?  

“The great satisfaction and the great frustration is the same: owning The Block Island Times. Monday to Thursday I am up at the crack-of-dawn, and I’m still writing at 9 o’clock at night. But after the paper comes to shore and after people have told us where the typos are, it’s a great satisfaction,” he said. 

Bruce said his background in advertising, including drawing, writing copy and managing a creative team that had to meet deadlines gave him experience in multi-faceted disciplines that he brought to The Block Island Times

“It’s been fun,” he said.

Peter Voskamp, editor and writer

In fall 2003, after two summers working at The Block Island Times, I set off to live in Berlin, Germany, and my boss Royal Bruce wrote a very nice send off in the paper.

Seven months later he called to offer me the BIT editor position, and suddenly I was back in the office on Ocean Avenue — where I stayed the next seven years, two of them with Bruce and Peggy at the top of the masthead. We had a lot of fun.

Bruce marveled at who would “wash up” on the island and end up working at the paper — somehow it was always staffed year-round, and usually with capable, interesting people.

He treated the at times ramshackle BIT crew as family, offering more forbearance than a boss would perhaps normally display. The word that comes to mind to describe Bruce as boss is patience.

For example: In those days the paper was sent off to the printer on a disc on the last Thursday ferry — couldn’t email it at that point.  It was usually a mad, stressful scramble to meet the deadline. And every week that effort was rewarded with post-work drinks, hosted by Bruce and Peggy, usually across the street at Captain Nick’s during the summer.

After one of these soirees, Peg and Bruce returned to the office to find a strange meteorological event underway: while it was gorgeous outside it was apparently pouring rain inside the office. BIT production-meister John Foster lived upstairs and had left his bath spigot going… and then walked away… leading to a flood, collapsed downstairs ceilings, and an array of newly-Bruce-purchased computers exposed to a drenching downpour.

And what did Bruce do? Once the water flow stopped, he quietly set to work cleaning up the office. Foster wasn’t fired — or even mildly admonished.

The publisher also wasn’t wild about Foster’s after-hours parties, and he quietly hinted they should end. But invariably they’d flare up again. John would sometimes take photos of the night’s revelry and store them in the paper’s photo system. One night, this proved to be Club Foster’s undoing.

For the next morning we each arrived to find a beautifully rendered photo array on our desks, care of Bruce, that said: “In case you missed the last night at Club Foster, here’s your commemorative photo collection!” Each of us caught in flagrante delicto with some sort of refreshment in hand. And that took care of Club Foster (for a bit at least…)

On Fridays, the day the paper comes out, we’d steel ourselves to “catch cannonballs,” as Bruce termed it: deal with potential backlash from disgruntled readers. While we were priming ourselves over the big stories of the week, the worst invective invariably came from the least likely sources: rage over a forgotten gardening club announcement, a grandmother demanding a retraction due to a grandchild’s misspelled name.

He had our backs, too. When I was subpoenaed and forced at the last minute to fly off to testify in the Champlin’s Marina expansion matter, Bruce didn’t bat an eyelash about covering the transportation or legal fees.

Typos — we joked about how a dozen pair of eyes could still miss them. But as a seasoned Madison Avenue ad man, they drove him crazy!

His mind was set to ease one day in 2004, however, when The Providence Journal published a headline announcing “Rumsfeld’s Pubic Role is Shrinking,” thinking we could do no worse…

Bruce and I bonded over puns, much to the dismay of all within earshot as we bounced them to each other over the cubicle wall separating us, each upping the cringe-worthy ante. And though we haven’t worked together in a dozen years, we nevertheless continued our pun exchange with regularity.  

A few months ago — just before learning Bruce was facing some serious health issues — I sent him an ad from a funeral home, which stated “Trust … it’s URNED!” Which he said made him laugh “his ashes off…!”

Much was made, even by him, about his resemblance to both Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut. I think he liked the Vonnegut comparison better, as he was fond of repeating Vonnegut’s line summing up life’s vagaries: “So it goes!”

He had the same sardonic sense of humor as those authors; he characterized his own variously as “grumpy” and “dopey,” and it was reflected in his weekly cartoons. I know I, and I bet every other BIT editor, has a stash of cartoons we couldn’t publish!

Just a few days before his passing I was leaving the island airport and, aware of his health issues, was shocked to see Bruce and Peggy drive by. Bruce was driving! Well, then, I thought, we’ll have a chance to chat. But we didn’t, I’m sorry to say.

So it goes.

I’ll miss my punny pal.