SKOWHEGAN — Morning Sentinel reporter Doug Harlow, a longtime newspaperman who friends and colleagues recall as a consummate storyteller and dogged community journalist, died Thursday morning at his home in Athens following recent treatment for a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Harlow, 70, was a reporter for the Morning Sentinel for 31 years, primarily reporting on Somerset County from the newspaper’s Skowhegan bureau. He loved his family, the Red Sox, cayenne peppers and a good story.

He is perhaps best known as a tough-minded journalist who for the last 14 years used a hand-held electronic larynx to speak, following surgery in 2005 to remove his cancer-stricken vocal cords. A 2013 Salt Institute radio documentary on Harlow detailed how he continued to work as a reporter and communicate with people just a few months after that surgery.

Harlow had been out on medical leave from the Morning Sentinel for the past three months while being treated for symptoms of pneumonia, eventually leading to a recent diagnosis that he had cancer cells in his lungs and would undergo chemotherapy.

Survivors include his wife Mary Lou, and his adult children: son John, and daughter Georgia. A celebration of life is planned at a later date, family said.

Covering the sprawling Somerset County, Harlow was remembered by colleagues as an avid community journalist whose bread-and-butter were local stories on crime, businesses, municipal government and the arts.

“He was a great storyteller both in person and in print,” said Lisa DeSisto, publisher of MaineToday Media, which includes the Morning Sentinel, Kennebec Journal and Portland Press Herald.

Harlow, who attended the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, traveled far and wide to many countries before settling down. He was a Stone Soup Society poet and cab driver in Boston in the 1970s and was hired as a contracted correspondent for the Sentinel in January 1988.

Doug Harlow, longtime reporter for the Morning Sentinel, emerges from the newspaper’s Skowhegan office on May 3, 2018. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Morning Sentinel reporter Amy Calder recalls both she and Harlow started out as correspondents 31 years ago just a few months apart. Calder said they worked closely together, scouring Somerset County for stories and comparing notes.

“It quickly became evident that he was a real bulldog, sniffing out stories and pursuing them relentlessly until he got at the truth,” Calder said. “I remember many years ago writing a story that irked some officials at Somerset County Sheriff’s Office, which at the time was located in the basement of the county courthouse. When I went in to get the complaint log one morning, a sheriff’s dispatcher referred to me as ‘Amy Harlow.’ Doug got a big kick out of that and considered it a compliment. Thereafter, we referred to each other as ‘bro’ and ‘sis.’ In one of several phone calls we had over the last few weeks, I told Doug I worried about him all the time as he was my ‘bro.’ His response was, ‘You know, I really am at peace with this.’ Here he was, sick as a dog, and trying to make me feel better about his diagnosis. Doug was a hard worker and journalism was his life, after his family, of course.”

Calder last spoke with Harlow when he called her Sunday night, saying he would continue to pass along tips for stories until he could get back to work for the Sentinel in the Skowhegan office.

“He was a trooper ‘til the end,” Calder said.

Harlow reported on a number of high-profile stories over the years, mostly recently on the fatal shooting of Somerset County Sheriff’s Cpl. Eugene Cole in April 2018. Cole’s killer, John Williams, was sentenced Thursday to life in prison.

DOGGED AND INTREPID

In audio provided for the Salt Institute documentary, Harlow, then 56 years old, can be heard speaking in his own voice on June 17, 2005, just prior to his life-changing surgery. “You know this really sucks, not having a voice, but it’s a message to everybody who can hear this voice now: don’t smoke,” Harlow says.

The surgery was a success at the time, removing Harlow’s throat cancer. Doctors cut a hole at the base of his throat so he could breath and he began using a palm-sized electro-larynx up against his throat to speak. Harlow’s new voice presented challenges at first when he returned to reporting, as people would sometimes not return his calls or hang up on him at the sound of his electronic voice.

Morning Sentinel reporter Doug Harlow, holding his electro-larynx up to his throat, interviews two people at the Harmony grange during a community Christmas party on Dec. 12, 2010. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Even amid those struggles, Harlow continued reporting on central Maine with a mixture of passion and a dry sense of humor.

Judy Harrison, senior criminal justice reporter for the Bangor Daily News, said she bonded with Harlow “because we are both old cranky journalists and share a philosophy about journalism that was formed long before Tweets or Wi-Fi or Instagram.”

“He knew more about Somerset County than any other reporter in the state, and I learned a lot about court coverage reading his stories. He knew which details to give his audience,” Harrison said. “They don’t make ’em like Doug anymore — dogged, intrepid, irascible and rude when that’s the only way to get the story.”

Erin Rhoda, editor of the investigative Maine Focus department for the Bangor Daily News, worked as a Morning Sentinel reporter out of the Skowhegan bureau from 2009 to 2012 and recalled Harlow as a mentor who taught her a lot about journalism and life.

In late October 2011, Rhoda would write a tragic story about her colleague: the Civil War-era Harlow home in Athens was destroyed by a late-night fire, drawing about 40 firefighters from six area fire departments. The Harlows rebuilt a yellow farmhouse at the same site.

“Thank you for buying me a hot dog and taking me to sit and watch the trains — your way of convincing me to work with you in Skowhegan,” Rhoda wrote in part, in a remembrance on Facebook. “Thank you for putting up with me for two and a half years, just the two of us working as reporters in an old shed converted into an office by the rushing river. Thank you for letting me speed with you as you followed the cryptic directions over the scanner — that only you could follow because law enforcement mentioned where a business ‘used to be’ — in time to watch the police arresting a man who had fled court and for me to snap a photo of him yelling profanities at my face. Thank you for trusting me with the story of your home’s fire, for telling me about your travels and close calls and magical encounters with street lights, for sharing Mary Lou’s lasagna, for always being honest, for not being afraid of death, for modeling how a parent loves their children, for sticking up for me, for giving me an afternoon to say goodbye. Thank you for making me laugh when mostly what I saw every day was some form of tragedy. No life is easy. We can only be so lucky to have friends like you along for the story.”

Morning Sentinel reporter Doug Harlow, right, poses with reporter Rachel Ohm at the newspaper’s Skowhegan office in 2012. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Portland Press Herald education reporter Rachel Ohm, who worked with Harlow for several years after Rhoda at the Sentinel’s Skowhegan office, remembers first meeting him at the former bureau office on Madison Avenue.

“It was a drafty room with wood paneling and filled with stacks of old newspapers and posters from local shows and state fairs that Doug had collected over the years,” Ohm said. “We didn’t hit it off at first. I remember thinking it was so rude that Doug told me I had to dress differently for the job and insisted I wear jeans and flannel to blend in with the people I would be interacting with. Of course, he was right and it’s something we later laughed about.”

Harlow showed Ohm the ropes: what to listen for on the police scanner, how to report on local government and school boards and helped her cover a murder trial when she had just been on the job a few months.

“He encouraged me to get out in the community and make the effort to drive to further away places like Bingham and Madison to get the stories of people in rural places that would otherwise go untold,” Ohm said, saying his dedication to covering the Skowhegan and Somerset County area stood out. “So much has been written about how newsrooms are shrinking and there are areas of the country with no reporters or no local newspapers. I really admire Doug for the commitment he made every day to working in an area that would otherwise go uncovered. It’s not easy to be the only reporter around or to work in a bubble away from other journalists or editors. Doug did that every day and he did a really good job of getting some great stories.”

 

COMMUNITY REACTION

People who interacted with Harlow regularly for local stories were shocked by his loss.

Christine Almand, Skowhegan town manager, said she will miss Harlow and could usually hear him coming down the hallway at Town Hall, “which helped me decide whether to welcome him or hide depending on what kind of day I was having.”

“Truthfully, Doug was easy to talk to, and I always felt that I could be real around him,” Almand said. “Some of the topics that we discussed for the paper weren’t always fun to talk about, but we always had a good friendship and enjoyed talking about our families. Doug was always so proud of his family. My heart goes out to them during this difficult time.”

Kristina Cannon, executive director of the nonprofit Main Street Skowhegan group that promotes revitalization efforts in town, said Harlow was “such a great community supporter. “He loved Skowhegan and its people,” she said. “This is a huge loss for our town.”

Skowhegan Police Chief David Bucknam, who became the town’s top law enforcement official in July 2017, said he had a lot of respect for Harlow and a good relationship because the reporter was “very straightforward” and there were “no games” when he wrote stories about the agency and local crime.

“He could call me at any time and I knew I could call him at any time,” Bucknam said. “He would take my call even when the Red Sox were playing.”

Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster noted that he started policing in 1974 and had known Harlow during his entire career, and the two had an “evolving relationship” that was built on mutual respect.

“He was a tough reporter; always asking the tough questions,” Lancaster said. “He was always very clear that he was not in reporting to make friends, but for facts and to find out why people are doing what they’re doing. He was very tough. It’s a real loss — he was part of the fabric of the community.”

Morning Sentinel reporter Doug Harlow, center, jokes around with Sheriff Dale Lancaster, left, at the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office in East Madison on Feb. 22, 2013. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Jeff McCabe, director of legislation and politics for Maine State Employee Association SEIU Local 1989, said Harlow wrote stories that “shaped a region and informed the state of things happening in our communities for a long time.” McCabe, who is also a former Democratic state legislator representing Skowhegan who served 2008 to 2016 as assistant leader and majority leader in the House, said he first met Harlow when he discovered you could get results on election night by going to the newspaper’s old Skowhegan office “and watching them being filled in on the wall on paper with poorly drawn lines.”

McCabe said he recalls working with Harlow on stories about the Lake George Regional Park around 2007 and “enjoyed his pushing us to share more of the history of such a special place.”

“My respect for Doug grew out of his reporting of local politics and after an issue arose in public meeting. Doug pushed for transparency, as all reporters should,” McCabe said. “Doug could be fierce when he needed to be and if he thought you might not be telling the entire story. That is not always easy, but I respected that and appreciated his drive. I always admired Doug’s love of his family and the love he had for folks in his town. He knew I admired his firewood skills and always gave me a hard time being behind on my firewood.”

Ohm, the former Sentinel reporter, said Harlow became a really good friend, inviting her to plant a vegetable garden in his yard the first summer she was here, and she worked with him and his wife planting tomatoes, cucumbers and garlic.

That, friends say, was Doug: enjoying life’s pleasures.

“There are also numerous times I could point to where he encouraged me to take a healthy break from work,” Ohm said, “and enjoy little things — like going to get an ice cream on a summer day or eating lunch by the river.”

“Doug was a damned good newspaperman,” Sentinel city editor Greg McManus said, “and a damned good man.”

 


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