Esther Hamiltonization

Someone recently brought up the subject of Esther Hamilton, an old reporter for the Youngstown Vindicator. I am so glad. I was beginning to think that I dreamed her.

But as it turns out, I think she was a real person. For Youngstowners of my generation, Esther was legendary. Kind of like King Arthur, where it sounds like it could be true, you’re pretty sure it was real, but then you hear the Merlin part and you think, nah, this is just made up.

Esther had been a reporter in Youngstown since 1918 and by the time I got my journalism degree, more than 60 years later (Sixty! Six. Tee.), she was still writing away, her little head shot showing up on her column a couple times a week.

She was Youngstown’s own sob sister. She had been one of those newswomen you see in movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, wearing a suit, ankle-strap shoes and a hat - in fact Esther was somewhat known for her hats. She covered all the big stories of the day, at a time when a medium-sized paper in a medium-sized city would send its own reporters out of town in a big black Studebaker to cover big national stories.

Later, she wrote a column called Around Town, where she passed along little tidbits about what was happening in and around Youngstown, with her personal take on things inserted. Then she got old and moved to Florida with her “longtime companion” but still continued to write the column. Her column about Youngstown happenings. From Florida.

People would send her notes in the mail about what they were doing and she would compile it all from her screened lanai and mail it back to Youngstown with her comments. Her commentary was often how kids today are whippersnappers who show no respect and commit crimes. One time she actually said – and I loosely paraphrase – All young people today just want to rob 7-Elevens and buy champagne.

Then she got super old and still continued to send in pieces of paper with writing on them to the Vindicator and the managing editor would rewrite it and it ran under Esther’s name with a head shot from the 1960s, with cat-eye glasses and a Marcel.

Dan Leone, who writes for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, recently mentioned Esther in a column. When he was growing up, he thought it was hilarious and beautiful that Esther would write Around Town “from her retirement home in Florida” and “we'd all trudge through the snow to get the paper and read her.” (Nice touch, Dan . . . living in California and you had to say something about the snow in northeastern Ohio.)

Then she got even older and announced her final retirement. A new reporter who didn’t know enough to look busy or be in the bathroom or the morgue would be asked to call her in Florida, do an interview with her, and write the retirement story.

I still have the clip somewhere. I’m afraid to read it though, because I think I may have made the whole thing up.

Up until that phone call, my only near encounter with Esther was when she called our house to ask my sister Pam something about the Vindicator Spelling Bee and she yelled at Pam - the most sensitive of the Laney sisters by far - and hung up on her. Our family was in awe and fear of Esther.

Needless to say I’d rather have crawled on my hands and knees through spilled chemicals on Interstate 80 than to call Esther Hamilton at her retirement home in Florida. And that was before I knew that Esther was deaf, which made a phone interview seem like a ridiculous idea.

But when Annie Przelomski came out of her office and walked up to your desk, with that 3-foot-long cigarette dangling out of her mouth, and said, “Call this number and interview Esther Hamilton. She’s retiring,” you picked up the phone and you called Esther Hamilton. The fear of being put back on obits and chemical spills was fierce.

I had to use the former publisher, the late Mr. Brown’s, office because it was one of the few rooms in the newsroom that had a door that you could close. I went behind the big wooden door and called the number and Esther answered and said HELLO!


I screamed the entire interview into the phone. Even then, she couldn’t hear me and some of her answers didn’t quite match up with my carefully – albeit quickly and nervously - crafted questions. She had no idea what I was saying and I was furiously jotting down stuff that she said.

I kept thinking, “This woman covered the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, for Christ’s sake, and I’m talking to her about the Pyatt Street Market!”

When I opened the door to Mr. Brown’s office, I was sweating profusely and my big ‘80s hair was fairly limp. Everyone was looking at me.

Of course, then, when she died, the whole Esther file got dumped back onto my desk and I had the privilege of writing her obituary. By then, though, she was retro and cool again - getting her out of circulation helped - and I proudly wrote her obit. When people asked me what I covered at the paper, I would say, “Boardman, obits, and Esther.”

Labels: , , ,