By Gail McCarthy
---- — Peter Watson, the former Gloucester Daily Times editor and lifelong newsman who died Saturday at 73, is being remembered as one who inspired a generation of journalists, not just through his newsroom leadership, but also through friendships, many which lasted a lifetime.
He nurtured hundreds of interns and reporters who passed through the doors of the Times and its parent Essex County Newspapers, and many of them even lived at his sprawling, dark blue Victorian house on Granite Street in Rockport.
There, he and his wife, Patricia, provided not just a house but a home, drawing the young writers into conversation or taking them for a swim in the nearby quarry. But whether at work or at play, his legacy lives on in the lives of writers across the country.
Watson served as editor of the Times from 1970 to 1983. He retired as general manager of Essex County Newspapers in 2002.
“The Gloucester Times and Watson launched many careers,” said Lisa Miller, a Times intern in 1978 who now directs the journalism program at the University of New Hampshire. “For years, journalism interns from the University of New Hampshire worked for the Times. Pat and Peter treated us like family and helped us through the ups and downs of the internship.”
In an interview just a week before he died, Watson noted the path of former local writers, including one who earned a Pulitzer, and so many others who went on to work as editors, publishers and authors.
Barbara Carton, a longtime staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal, said most of what she learned about journalism was “pure Peter.” She noted that she grew up at a time when her father’s notion of a career path for her was one of working as a receptionist at The Northern Trust Bank in her native Chicago, until a suitable husband turned up.
“Peter’s notion was that after some training as the Rockport reporter, I should cover the waterfront — never mind that I was a Midwesterner and didn’t know a dragger from a dogfish,” Carton wrote in an email. “I would learn and I would have fun. I would interview guys in dive bars and in the fish plants; I would go to George’s Bank. Peter dispensed much-needed advice, support and a ton of laughs.”
Kevin Sullivan, senior correspondent at The Washington Post, worked as an intern at Peabody Times in 1981 and then as a staff writer at the Gloucester Times from 1982 to 1985, covering Rockport and the waterfront. He, along with his wife, Mary Jordan, won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting at the Post in a series about the Mexican criminal justice system.
“Peter was a real inspiration to a whole generation of us who passed through the Gloucester Times,” Sullivan said. “He was a mentor and a friend. He, more than anybody I’ve ever known, kind of put the fun in journalism. He had such infectious energy, and he got us all to work incredibly hard and absolutely fall in love with this business. He had that kind of renegade spirit that is just really attractive in a leader and you wanted to follow that guy.
“I have this enduring image of Peter driving around in that old blue convertible with his hair blowing in the wind — and just smiling,” Sullivan said. “He knew how to have fun, but he worked hard and inspired you with his energy and image — and that’s a rare thing. I wouldn’t be where I am without Peter.”
Watson contacted a reporter about a week ago to share an “obit” he wrote knowing his death was imminent. He highlighted the dozens of awards earned by the Gloucester Times, where he cheerfully pounded nails into the wall to hang the awards, which eventually grew to 35 feet long.
Watson was also known for his physical prowess; he ran up Mount Washington and skied down its Tuckerman Ravine after hiking up the mountain with his ski gear. He was an avid sailor and played quarterback for more than 15 years at Sunday morning football games at Evans Field.
Just 18 months ago, he ran up Mount Washington during the 52nd Run to the Clouds, an all-uphill 7.6 mile run to the summit of the highest peak in the Northeast.
Two months later, he confronted a diagnosis of brain cancer, but he underwent intense treatment, and it wasn’t long before he returned to running around town.
He was born in Leominster to a mother who was a Latin teacher and a father who worked as reporter for 30 years at the Fitchburg Sentinel and previously the Worcester Telegram.
Watson graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1961 with a degree in political science. He served six months in the Army Reserve before landing his first newspaper job as an editor of several weeklies in the Worcester area. But in 1963, he found a job as a daily reporter at the former Beverly Times. During a recent interview at his home, he recalled how one of his first assignments was to get local reaction to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
He left the paper in 1969 to work as editor for a sailboat racing magazine. After covering America’s Cup trials in 1970, he took the job as editor of the Gloucester Daily Times. Even when he went on to larger executive roles, he remained close to the Cape Ann newspaper, always providing tips and story ideas to the reporters.
Watson nurtured a close bond with his two sons, Seth and Jared.
“We may have a small biological family, but we have a huge extended family with people all over the place because of how he opened up this house to so many young people,” said 43-year-old Jared. “This house was just so much fun all the time.”
Instead of using his authority in the workplace, he influenced those he oversaw by leading the way, Seth said.
“The person we saw was pretty much the person everyone else saw,” he said. “There was a consistent face that he presented to everybody.”
The family is planning a memorial service, although a date has not yet been set.