The man behind the Tribune

Posted 1/3/14

Dave Bonner took the reins of his hometown newspaper 50 years ago this week. Today, he is still the publisher, still devoted to Powell’s paper, still hitting deadlines.

“We believe in Powell,” Bonner said. “Take care of the community and …

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The man behind the Tribune


Dave Bonner marks 50 years at helm of hometown newspaper

The names Bonner and Powell Tribune have been linked for half a century — and that will continue for some time to come.

Dave Bonner took the reins of his hometown newspaper 50 years ago this week. Today, he is still the publisher, still devoted to Powell’s paper, still hitting deadlines.

“We believe in Powell,” Bonner said. “Take care of the community and the community will take care of you. The people of the Tribune have always done that.”

The Tribune was first published in March 1909, and two families have controlled it for almost all of that time.

Someone with connections to the Baird family owned it, except for a brief lapse, from 1912 until 1964. During that time, the longest-serving publisher was Raymond T. Baird, from 1918 to 1949.

The Bonners, primarily Dave, have served the paper since January 1964.

Dave Bonner, 73, was raised in Powell from the time he was a year old. He started working for the Tribune as a 15-year-old high school student, covering sports.

“I was paid by the inch, 10 cents an inch,” Bonner recalled with a smile.

His older brother Bob had done the same job before him, and younger brother Jim would follow in their footsteps. The three Bonner brothers were the first, but far from the last, members of the clan to work for the Tribune.

“I had this abiding interest in sports,” Dave said. “I read the agate type box scores. I read the sports pages front to back.”

He devoured the sports sections in the Tribune and the Billings Gazette, and developed a writing style that he still utilizes today. Bonner writes in short, crisp sentences, describing what he is covering by using the terms and phrases of the people he interviewed.

After graduating from Powell High School in 1958, he was offered a $200 scholarship from the Wyoming Press Association. Bonner used that, in addition to an academic scholarship, to enroll at the University of Wyoming.

“I didn’t have a real sense of what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

But he still loved to write, so he signed up for journalism. Back then, freshmen were put to work at the college newspaper.

“We were reporters — unpaid reporters — for the Branding Iron as freshmen,” Bonner said.

That intro to journalism job came complete with chewings out from an older student who served in an editor’s role, as well as names plastered on the Shape Up Sheet, posted for anyone to see on a wall on campus.

But Bonner, who also came home to Powell one summer to do an internship at the Tribune, must have shaped up quickly, since he served as sports editor as both a sophomore and junior and was named editor during his senior year. The sports editor made $4 per week; the editor’s pay was triple that.

So on the luxurious pay of $12 a week, Bonner married and started a family. He had met Diane Elmer of Evanston, a bright, pretty art student, and after they were wed in the summer before their senior year, they moved into married student housing.

After he graduated, and with daughter Shelby about to join the family, Bonner was offered three jobs: As a reporter for the Cheyenne Eagle for $75 per week; as sports editor for the McCook, Neb., paper for $80 per week, or as a reporter for the Riverton Ranger in central Wyoming for $90 per week.

“I took the highest offer,” Bonner said. “So glad I did.”

The Ranger was owned by Bob and Roy Peck, who quickly became both bosses and friends to the young journalist. He started there in June 1962, staffing the “Lander Bureau” — of which he was the sole member.

Bonner covered the courthouse and the west end of Fremont County, mailing stories and film to Riverton, or dictating them over the phone.

“I called them in on the ‘Lander Line,’” he said, smiling once again at the memory.

Bonner’s nose for news showed early, as he took a photo of a forest fire near Lander in the summer of 1962 that was named the Wyoming Press Association Sweepstakes Picture of the Year. Fire, it would turn out, would be a major part of his career.

The Pecks were impressed by their new reporter and brought him to the main office in 1963. Then, that fall, they made an offer that astounded him.

“They sat me down and said, ‘How would you like to go home and run your hometown paper?’” Bonner recalled.

“I said, ‘Great, but I don’t know how I’d be able to do that,’” he said.

The Pecks planned to buy out Curt Whaley, who owned the Tribune. They decided to install Bonner and Ron Lytle, who was working for the paper as an ad salesman at the time, as co-publishers.

“They said, ‘We need managers to run the paper as owners,’” Bonner said. “That was the genius of what they did. They said to Ron and me, ‘Run that paper as if it was your own.’”

Minority owners did majority of work

Bonner and Lytle had been “great friends” in college, Bonner said. They had stayed in touch and were eager to try to run their own newspaper.

Both put up $1,500 and were given 1.5 percent ownership, while the Peck family — Bob and Roy and their mother Elvira, owned the other 97 percent.

Despite being the very definition of minority owners, the two young journalists were given complete control, Bonner said. They met with the Pecks once or twice a year, and were not told what to do or how to run their paper.

“Never a heavy hand,” Bonner said. “Guidance, yes. They were experienced newspaper people.”

He said he and Lytle were not without their own skills.

“We knew how to newspaper,” Bonner said. “I couldn’t have had a better partner.”

They divided duties, with Bonner writing almost all the stories, and Lytle taking photos while also selling and designing the ads. They had a small crew, with two women handling the social news as well as the bookkeeping and office work.

Two talented and experienced printers, Ted Braa and Wayne Breitweiser, produced the paper in the small shop. It was less than half as big as the Tribune offices are today.

Bonner and Lytle were young men, so they didn’t mind the long hours, Bonner said.

“We were young, energetic and a little bold,” he said. “We weren’t afraid to work, to work hard.”

Bonner also showed his flair with a camera, winning his second Sweepstakes Picture of the Year award for a photo showing the aftermath of a devastating fire at Day’s Furniture in Powell. The photo, titled “A man and his loss,” showed store owner Ike Day in the debris of his once-thriving business.

Then as now, the Tribune came out twice a week. Bonner and Lytle produced the news and ad content, then put on aprons and helped print it as well. They rolled up their sleeves as they helped create the pages in those days of a letterpress and hot type.

“We had an old Mealy flat-bed press,” Bonner said. “We got as dirty and inky as the printers.”

They also helped stamp the address on the 2,000 or so copies of the paper, and drove them to the stands and the post office for delivery.

“Whatever it took,” Bonner said.

He was a hometown boy, and Lytle had worked in Powell for a year before they bought a piece of the paper. Bonner said they were immediately embraced and supported by the community.

They also made efforts to improve the paper, covering a midweek basketball game in Lovell and coming back to the office that night to write the story and print the photo so it could be in the next day’s edition. They did the same when Sen. Gale McGee, a Democrat who served three terms, made a speech in the area during a campaign.

“That had never been done before,” Bonner said. “We said, ‘Hey, let’s do it.’

“I don’t know if anyone appreciated it,” he said. “But we were willing to do it.”

On March 1, 1968, Lytle accepted an offer to be publisher of the Jackson Hole Guide, and Bonner bought his friend and partner out. He was now the sole publisher, although the Peck family still owned the majority of the paper’s stock.

His relationship with Lytle didn’t end then, however. In 1975, the two old college buddies and Bob Peck joined together to buy the Hardin, Mont., Herald.

Lytle eventually left the newspaper business, and, in a major career change, became an Episcopalian priest. He retired after 25 years in the priesthood, and has returned to live in Powell.

Lytle has fond memories of his old partner, and of their years at the Tribune.

“It is hard to believe that 50 years ago a couple of young men started their careers as owners of newspapers — a very satisfying life,” he said. “In jest I tell people I gave up the bad news for the good news. It gets a chuckle and a groan. My congratulations to Dave on his reaching this milestone and best wishes for the coming years.”

Bonner produced the paper, drove the negatives to Cody and brought the newspapers back to Powell. But fire once again stepped in to help shape his future.

“Fire has played a major role in the story of the Tribune,” Bonner said, noting a 1918 fire burned the Tribune offices to the ground.

With no press, the papers scrambled for several editions, and had to scramble. Worland stepped up and helped out the Tribune, although Bonner also recalls a flight to and from Riverton to get the paper printed.

But a makeshift press operation was established in Cody, and the papers kept printing there for two more years. Bonner said it made him aware of the need to return printing to Powell.

He built a new pressroom and darkroom and acquired equipment. He also bought a new three-unit Goss press.

It made its first run of papers on Sept. 20, 1976, Shelby’s 14th birthday. Those three units still are in operation, and a fourth has been added.

The presses look almost new despite the thousands of pages that have passed through them. Bonner said the press room staff has done tremendous work to maintain the equipment, while always keeping in mind their job was to do high-quality work.

“You have to give credit to our press room folks,” he said. “We have a terrific-looking paper.”

Talented staff played key roles

Bonner said while he is proud of his years of work, and the stories, columns and editorials he has written, he is well aware of the talented people who have helped produce the Tribune.

“There have been wonderful, exceptional, skilled, dedicated journalists who have worked here,” he said. “I am so proud to have worked with them.”

Many went on to other newspapers, and some became publishers. David Peck now runs the Lovell Chronicle; Pat Schmidt was the publisher of the Thermopolis Independent Record, and other former Tribune employees who became publishers, such as Dave Perry, Ken Wilson, Justin Lessman, former agriculture editor and local historian Beryl Churchill and many others were major players in the paper’s success, Bonner said.

Steve Prosinski, who recently retired as editor of the Billings Gazette, got his start at the Tribune after graduating from the University of Wyoming, Bonner recalled.

Dave Perry and Carolyn Bower, Perry’s business partner who later became his wife and the mother of his children, met Bonner in 1981. They teamed with publishers in Lovell and Thermopolis to start a free weekly newspaper, The Big Horn Basin Times. It distributed about 18,000 copies a week out of the Tribune.

“Carolyn and I published and edited, and I was The Trib’s sports editor, too,” he recalled. “It was very difficult, expensive, bad timing, and the paper lasted less than two years. But, boy, we worked hard.

“I remember loading Dave’s Bronco with something like 4,000 papers, and driving like bats from hell (that’s how Dave drove in those days), almost no sleep, to deliver papers on Worland doorsteps,” Perry said, telling a favorite story. “When Dave saw he was about to deliver a paper on the door of Hugh Knoefel, at that time the publisher of the Northern Wyoming Daily News, he snuck up to the front porch, dropped a copy and ran as quickly as he could (not very fast), so Hugh wouldn’t see his competitor publisher performing the simplest, yet most vital of newspaper tasks. It was funny.

“Dave bought us all dinner afterward,” he said. “Hands down, he’s the best I’ve ever known at making employees feel appreciated.”

Perry, who is now the president and CEO of the Greater Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce in Arizona, said Roy and Bob Peck, who both served as state senators as well as newspapermen, were great mentors to him and Bonner.

“They taught us all that a good community newspaper was the most important business in town,” he said.

“Bob Peck was my mentor in newspapers and in life,” Bonner said.

Perry said he thinks there is one primary reason Bonner remained at the Tribune.

“Dave loves Powell. He always has, and he always will. He understands the role his newspaper plays in making it a better place to live.”

“That’s not easy. Sometimes, many times, there are items in the paper people don’t like, and you see them at the grocery store or the bank, and they’ll tell you what they think,” Perry said.

“To excel, you never lose touch with your community. Dave never has lost touch. And, I would note, he’s invested in the product, and the people, even through the tough times. So many bigger newspapers have smaller newsrooms than the Tribune.”

He said some of the best work he did in his life happened at the Times and the Trib — “and it’s because I wanted to do well for Dave, and Diane, and the place. Powell is a better place because Dave, and all his family, have run the Tribune.”

Wilson, who now lives in Waynesville, N.C., has stayed in touch with his former boss, and said he still reads the Tribune online from time to time.

“Dave could have pursued his career at any number of metro daily newspapers throughout this country, but he chose Powell,” he said. “Having worked for Dave many years ago it was obvious to me that he chose Powell because he loved his home and the state of Wyoming.

“Dave’s work life has been and is community,” Wilson said. “This has not been a common career, it has been a dedicated community service lifestyle.

“Why has he been at it for 50 years? Well, I would say that a guy with Dave’s loyalty and dedication finds difficulty putting something down, laying it aside when there remains much to do,” he said. “A community is never fixed, completed, done; it is a fluid entity. There is always an important issue, another challenge for the community to overcome.”

Terry Baker was a trusted editor for many years, and his son CJ Baker is now a reporter at the Tribune. Scott Hagel and Dennis Davis also ran the Tribune newsroom.

K.T. Roes was the paper’s Cody-based county editor for many years and went on to become a publisher in her own right with her Wordsworth Publishing Co. in Cody, Bonner said. Roes was an excellent staffer and remains a friend of the Tribune’s today.

But the key to the Tribune’s success has been the Bonner family’s commitment to it.

A family matter

Dave Bonner started running the Tribune 50 years ago this month, while his wife focused on raising their three children. But by the 1970s, Diane Bonner began to play a bigger role, and her involvement was a key reason the paper survived and thrived, Dave Bonner said.

She spent the first decade of their married life at home, raising their three children. Then, when an ad manager departed, Dave asked his wife to fill in for a few weeks.

“I’ll always remember this, and this was how Diane remembered it, too. I said, ‘I know you can’t do this, but can you come down and help out for a little while?’”

He shakes his head as he recalls this. That challenge was all Diane needed, he said.

“Diane could sell,” Bonner said. “And she was so creative with color. Diane would hand-cut color. She became the ad manager, and she was the best ad manager the Tribune has ever had.”

She worked for no pay at first, as he tried to make the case that it would mean a larger bonus for them at the end of the year. “Better for whom?” Diane wondered aloud, Bonner recalled.

But there were some lean years, so she eventually took a salary, he said.

“It was not good thinking on my part,” Bonner said with a wry smile. “And it was not fair to her. After a while, she successfully argued her case.”

Dave Bonner said he’s heard from others over the years, and recalls once when a local banker called and told him he didn’t want to read a front-page story about some troubles at the bank.

The story ran — and on Page 1, Bonner notes.

Dave and Diane Bonner bought out the Pecks in 1985, and the Bonner family has owned it ever since. The paper is now owned and published by Print, Inc., with the three Bonner children and their families owning all the stock.

Dave Bonner is now an unpaid employee, although he retains the title of publisher, sits on the Editorial Board and keeps a hand in the paper’s daily business. It’s all he has known for the vast majority of his life.

“It’s a new generation of newspaper ownership,” Bonner said. “All the kids, they were always part of things.”

Like their parents, all three attended UW. Shelby and Brad earned journalism degrees, like their dad, but are not full-time Tribune employees. Toby, who helped his mother run a hand-painted furniture business for a few years, earned a degree in fine arts but is now the Tribune’s general manager.

There was a cost to the family’s devotion to the Tribune. The paper came out twice a week, 52 weeks a year.

“Those kids never had a family vacation,” Bonner said. “It’s a terrible thing I put this family through.”

Shelby didn’t see nearby Yellowstone National Park until she had graduated from high school. There were always deadlines to meet, bills to pay, papers to get out the door.

“I put them through that,” Bonner said. “I am not happy about that.”

But the family loved newspapers, and like their dad, they were sports fans. Dave coached youth baseball teams for years, leading teams that both Brad and Toby played on.

Most summer weekends were filled with baseball, and then the Bonners returned to work at the Tribune during the week. Dave said it seems like the first 40 years he was here just flew past.

“I kept my head down,” he said. “News knows no clock. The only thing I saw was the next paper. I believed in leading by example.”

A year in California

In 1974, Dave was offered a chance to serve a Professional Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University in California. He took it, and moved the entire family there for a year.

There were only 12 PJF fellows from over the country, and the other fellows were from national news organizations, including the New York AP Bureau, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, The Houston Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Oregonian from Portland, Ore., Newsweek, CBS News and ABC News.

Bonner said he wondered if this might be a springboard to a new career, a chance to work in a bigger newsroom. But he found he missed Powell, and returned to the Tribune when he was home for a Christmas break.

When the fellowship ended in 1975, the Bonner family came home to Powell, and Dave kept producing stories, editorials and pages for the Tribune. It was his career, he realized, and he was happy to do it.

However, things took a turn in the1990s. Diane was ill from leukemia.

The hard-charging but charming woman who created Powell’s Country Christmas celebration and led efforts to improve downtown, who envisioned red sidewalks, improved street lighting and other amenities, who served her community for 17 years on the Powell City Council, kept plugging away until she was too weak.

Diane Bonner died in 2001. Her name remains on the editorial page today, with a dedication from her family, and she was named to the Wyoming Press Association Hall of Fame in 2007.

Dave was appointed to her council seat after she died, and he was then elected on his own to serve six years. He later served two terms as a state representative from Park County, winning elections as a Republican in 2008 and 2010.

He enjoyed politics and has met and interviewed most of the major players in government over the years. Bonner also served as a UW trustee, along with other community and state service tasks he took on.

Bonner now serves on the Wyoming Lottery Corporation Board and is helping establish legalized gambling in the state. Gov. Matt Mead, who named Bonner to the board, said he deserves recognition.

“Dave’s career has been impressive. Not only has he guided the Powell Tribune well for five decades, he has also served his community and state in numerous other ways — as a city councilman, state representative, and member of the UW Board of Trustees, to name a few,” Mead said. “I am most grateful that he accepted my request to serve on the Board of Directors for the Wyoming Lottery Corporation. I know I speak for many when I say, ‘Congratulations and thank you, Dave, for your 50 years in publishing in our great state.’”

Bonner’s first calling has been his newspaper and the Powell area and its people. His children saw that, and learned from it.

Lessons from Dad

“Dad has always championed the positive impact a community newspaper can provide to a town and its citizenry,” said Shelby (Bonner) Wetzel. She has worked for the Tribune and is now the executive director of the Northwest College Foundation.

“That doesn’t mean you shy away from covering controversial subjects,” she said. “Dad used his role as publisher to help build and support Powell, to celebrate the good in our community. Both he and my mother loved this town and worked tirelessly to make it a special place. As Bonner children, we have learned from example to invest ourselves in activities that benefit the community and its future. I hope I can accomplish a portion of the good work my parents have done in their lives!”

Wetzel said the “Tribune family” was also an important facet of the business to her parents.

“Yes, my brothers and I worked through many of the production facets — mailroom, darkroom, pressroom, advertising sales and reporting — and my kids have all worked as newspaper stuffers and taken other assignments as well,” she said. “But more than our work within the business is the way Dad and Mom embraced the employees as part of their team! Making the office a positive work environment and embracing his employees, and their families, was a valuable lesson from Dad as well.”

Brad Bonner, a partner in a Cody law firm, said his dad has been devoted to the Tribune for half a century, and his family witnessed that commitment.

“Dave has dedicated his entire adult life to the Powell Tribune, to Powell and to the state of Wyoming,” Brad said. “He only knows one way of doing something: complete and total commitment. He never has been willing to do anything with less than his highest effort and the highest level of quality obtainable. That is true about his life in the Powell Tribune and his work as a citizen of Powell.

“To put in perspective what 50 years at the Powell Tribune looks like, I offer this: When I was very young — more than 40 years ago — I remember on press days he would go to work before I woke up and come home after we were in bed,” he said. “That was what was required in those days. Technology has changed the process dramatically. Now automation and computerization speeds the process up. A front page that used to get finished up around 7 or 8 in the evening now often is wrapped up before 5.

“It doesn’t mean people work less hard; it simply shows how long he has been at the Tribune,” Brad said.

“I think one of the highest compliments people pay to the Tribune is that citizens of Powell are proud of their hometown newspaper,” he said. “Dave set a standard 50 years ago and continues to maintain that standard today.”

Toby Bonner reflected on his family’s work at the paper, and its involvement in the community, but he said upon reflection, the quiet, personal moments also have been special.

“You know, the one thing that comes to mind when I think of what the experience at the Tribune has meant for me, it is that I have had the pleasure of having my desk situated just outside Dad’s office door the past 17 years,” he said. “From the time I was a young man in my early 20s to present, I’ve been able to share time with my father.

“I recall early mornings during the baseball season when were at our desks, prior to 8 a.m. when the Tribune staff came in. We would read the sports box scores from the daily papers sports sections. He with the Casper Star Tribune, and me with the Billings Gazette,” Toby said. “This was before the Internet was delivering them to us on our computers or smart phones. We would read the Yankees line from the night before to see how our favorite players performed and chat back and forth about who did what.”

Toby said his father also taught him what it takes to run a newspaper and how to treat people.

“The time spent, the lessons learned in life and in the newspaper business I have been able to glean from dad while working at his side are irreplaceable,” he said.

While 2008 marked the end of his full-time role at the paper, Dave Bonner has retained the title publisher and still writes stories when inspired or asked.

“They all say I can’t keep a secret,” Bonner said. “I love to tell a story. I’m a reporter.”

As usual, his approach is community-oriented.

“You take care of a community, and the community will take care of you,” he said.

He, Diane and Toby have also served as presidents of the Powell Area Chamber of Commerce. Plaza Diane, a gathering point for art and community events, was created in honor of Diane Bonner, with Shelby, Brad and Toby instrumental from the start.

“We believe in service,” Dave said. “We believe in it.”

Of course, things have changed. The hometown boy sees a lot of faces he doesn’t recognize in Powell now, and the community keeps changing. Bonner said after three decades of minimal growth, he is glad to see Powell’s population and economy picking up in recent years.

He’s also optimistic about newspapers, despite the gloom and doom that is forecast for their futures.

“We are fortunate that we are a community newspaper,” Bonner said. “No one else is telling the story of Powell. We are still the best at disseminating the news and advertising in Powell, Wyo.”

That has meant investing in the paper, and Bonner said he has always believed in keeping a trained and experienced staff to produce stories and photos. He and Toby, who serves as the paper’s general manager, are advocates for hard news and breaking stories, along with feature stories, a strong local editorial page and quality photographs.

“News costs money; news is expensive,” Dave said. “I believe in content. Content will be our salvation.”

Bonner remarried, and his wife Sue is also a member of the Tribune family. Dave Bonner said he has no plans to walk away from the paper he has guided for most of his life.

“The kids have been great to me,” Dave said, his typical modesty evident. “They said, ‘As long as you want the office, it’s yours.’ It’s great to have a place to go to.”