Our Man in Arlington

July 10, 2013 2:49 PM0 comments

As a newly minted college graduate back in 1976, I applied for a reporting job at the Northern Virginia Sun.

Thirty-seven years later, I landed an interview.

Herman Obermayer, the longtime editor and publisher of the old Sun (predecessor of today’s Sun-Gazette), accepted my lunch invite so we could compare notes on Arlington history and the state of journalism. Obermayer was his own man in Arlington long before my time, and at 88 he continues locally as an active author.

My boyhood memories of reading the Sun—a jaggedly typeset broadsheet delivered six days a week by neighborhood kids—skew toward coverage of Little League (including thrilling team photos). I recall features not found in the larger dailies, such as the Gil Thorp sports comic and fishing/hunting columnist Duck Duckson.

In my garage I recently discovered a yellowed Sun edition from June 16, 1972. Headlines: “I-66 Path for Metro Likely” and “Students Draw Bead on Rights Revision” quoting the old Arlington Youth Council. On the front page was Obermayer’s “Editor’s Viewpoint” in which he saw a rare defeat of a Fairfax school bonds referendum as a sign that “no growth” was growing in popularity.

“I never missed a week on the column,” Obermayer told me, “even if I was sick or traveling or had a birth in the family.” From 1963 to 1989 he wrote 1,700.

Obermayer bought the Sun, which dated from the 1930s, from “a bunch of New Deal liberals” as he calls them. A Philadelphia native and Dartmouth graduate with news experience in New Jersey and New Orleans, he also brought his World War II combat zone experience. He spent much of the ‘60s battling a strike by mechanical unions.

The editorial line was “center right,” Obermayer says, “though I went out of my way to endorse a few Democrats since I didn’t want it to be a Republican paper, like Fox News.” To compete, the Sun published editions for Falls Church and Vienna, which the big Washington papers often ignored.

Today’s weekly tabloid Sun-Gazette, says Obermayer, “is a dubious heir because it has been through so many turnovers and changes. But they do a pretty good job, and I admire what they’re trying to do.”

Obermayer’s Sun stood out with coverage of the American Nazi Party in Arlington (he had witnessed the Nuremberg trials). Far from intimidating the staff, the assignment “was a coveted job,” he recalls. “A school board meeting could be pretty dull” without some protest by George Lincoln Rockwell or followers. When the county board in 1983 allowed a Nazi demonstration at Yorktown High School on free speech grounds, Obermayer wrote editorials saying the board should be ashamed.

The Sun drew national attention in the late 1970s when it adopted an unusual policy of naming rape victims, on grounds of treatment equal with suspects commonly identified. “I still think I was right,” Obermayer says, arguing that allowing accusers anonymity conceded too much power to the state.

But the policy may have dented profits when he sold the paper in 1989, he admits. Still, Obermayer did all right for himself by transforming his business into a printer for college, trade and association newspapers. The new owners were uninterested in his Sun bound volumes, so he made sure they ended up at the Arlington library and the Arlington Historical Society.

 

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