Henry Gay was a newspaper owner, publisher, and editor best known for his 32-year stint with the Shelton-Mason County Journal, where he gained regional prominence for his satirical columns. His parents had operated a weekly newspaper in Monterey, California, that regularly challenged local authority. Henry followed their lead, especially after buying the Shelton weekly in 1966. Under his leadership, the Journal’s small staff publicized everything from bake sales to felony court cases, while Gay made waves and drew laughs with his provocative editorials. The paper’s controversial policy of printing the names of claimants along with defendants in sexual assault cases drew outrage from community members and other journalists, but was unanimously upheld by the state Supreme Court in 1993. Gay’s weekly editorials poked fun at politicians of all stripes and were printed in more than a dozen other newspapers. He won numerous journalism awards in the mid- to late-1990s before dying of cancer at age 72.
A Lifetime in Newspapers
Henry Guernsey Gay was born November 16, 1926, in Wheatland, Wyoming. His parents Miles Osgood Gay (1902-1995) and Antoinette Guernsey Gay (1894-1981) were journalists who met while working at the daily Monterey Herald in California. In 1933 they started their own paper, a feisty weekly called the Monterey Trader. Young Henry soon was part of the family business. He started delivering the paper at age 8 and also helped in the backshop where the Trader was produced.
At age 12, he was as a page in the California state legislature, where he witnessed what his son Charles would later describe as "dismaying bipartisan shenanigans" ("Henry G. Gay ..."). At 15, he was struck by the injustice of a Japanese American friend and his family being sent to an internment camp after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He majored in art at Monterey High School and intended to become a commercial artist, but World War II was raging when he graduated in 1944. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17. Boot camp was another formative experience for him. What he felt was unnecessarily harsh and insulting treatment of trainees "showed him a lot about the nature of people with power" ("Henry G. Gay ..."). He served on the minesweeper USS Maine in the Philippines and mainland China before being discharged in 1946.
Within days of returning home to Monterey he was working fulltime at the Trader. He ran the paper’s commercial printing business and helped in the backshop. In his early 20s he began writing a column called "Man Overboard" that was influenced by his admiration of prominent journalist and social critic H. L. Mencken (1880-1956). Gay was making his mark, skewering local politicians.
Moving to Washington
Henry’s expanding role included joining with his parents and his brother-in-law, Louis Gage, in a three-way ownership of the paper, which was renamed The Montereyan. In early 1949, he was moonlighting as a singer in an a cappella trio when he met Fern Wessel (1920-2019) at a nightclub. She was working as the bookkeeper for the Monterey branch of the Bank of America. They married on June 19, 1949, and had three children – Stephen, Charles and Julie – all of whom would have managerial positions when the family ran the Shelton paper.
The Montereyan partners moved north to Washington. They bought Pierce County’s Buckley News-Banner in 1952. The Gays sold the paper in Monterey and ran the Buckley paper until 1964, when the family’s patriarch and matriarch, Miles and Antoinette, retired. Henry Gay edited the Central Kitsap Reporter in Silverdale from 1964 to 1966, when he and two partners bought the Shelton-Mason County Journal. Gay later became the Shelton paper's sole owner, as well as its editor and publisher, eventually having Charles Gay become managing editor.
Under their leadership, the Journal was hyper-local. It told its readers "the harsh, happy and dull details of what’s happening in their community. From local elections, car wrecks, and the county commission wrap-up to wedding announcements, a barbecue fund-raiser for the Boy Scouts and what time to meet for tai chi at the senior center" (Kaiman). Another journalist described it as, "a weekly collection of names and faces, of the very largest ideas and the smallest drama and dreams" (Roberts). But that wasn’t all. Gay’s weekly editorials regularly rattled tradition and blasted foolishness. His targets were all over the political landscape, particularly those Gay viewed as blowhards and hypocrites. His editorials could be wickedly funny. They eventually were syndicated and appeared in more than a dozen other papers.
Serving Up Satire
When other papers ran Gay’s editorials, they were displayed as columns. Art Cullen, a small-town editor in Iowa who received the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, maintained the two forms are different.
"Editorials are a piece of cake. Get outraged, marshal facts and an argument by reading the newspaper and ripping off the reporter’s hard work, and let your fingers fly ... But a column. That’s a different thing entirely. It is not supposed to be an argument based on logic. It is supposed to be you writing something important in a graceful or funny way. Graceful is hard. Funny is harder yet" (Cullen, 278).
Gay did funny in a way that could entertain or enrage readers, and sometimes do both. Working at a cluttered roll-top desk, in a small office crammed with piles of newspapers, books, and magazines, he invented folksy characters – Mildred and Harold, and bartender Sidney and barfly Clyde – and had them discuss timely topics in down-home conversations. He used an unpretentious tone in settings familiar to his readers, for example starting a 1974 editorial during a gas shortage with "Thoughts while inhaling carbon monoxide in a line to the pumps" ("Journal of Opinion: Gas and Other Pains").
He earned the label "satirist" – one who makes fun of people by imitating them in ways that expose their flaws. Politicians he considered to be self-righteous flip-floppers played right into his crosshairs. He gave them nicknames: "Lone Star Moses" for presidential candidate Ross Perot and "The Arkansas Unraveler" for President Bill Clinton. He called them out: "Senator (Warren) Magnuson and other successful practitioners of the fine art of bribing people with their own money have no interest in responsible government. They are solely interested in staying in office" and "This is the same Henry Jackson who steadfastly supported the slaughter in Southeast Asia throughout its obscene course, based on his belief in the domino theory which he now discredits" (“Henry Gay Represented …”).
He invented awards to poke fun at well-known people – the annual Exciting Utterances of the Year and Pygmy-Baiting Awards. He ridiculed what he considered misguided intentions, as in this 1998 column about efforts by politicians to penalize tobacco companies for health problems related to their products:
"On one front, the objective of the conflict is to prevent all the nation’s children from discovering there is such a thing as cigarettes. That can be accomplished, for instance, by putting each child into a 50-gallon drum at birth and keeping him there until he reaches maturity" ("D.C.’s Fiscal Geniuses ...").
Gay also could hit close to home. In the 1960s when the Shelton School Board wanted to ban male students from having long hair, he printed a photograph of Hitler, labeled "acceptable," and one of Jesus, "unacceptable." Charles Gay recalled that one of his father’s favorite editorials was a mock front page written as if the military needed voter approval for funding as school districts do. The banner headline read "Special Levy for War on Ballot Tuesday" ("Henry G. Gay ...").
Uproar over Journal Policy
The Journal under Gay was more than local softball games and amusing editorials. It took a hard-edged approach in its coverage of felony trials in Mason County, identifying all parties involved, including cases of sexual assault or rape. Few if any other newspapers, statewide or nationally, printed the names of alleged victims in such cases. The Journal did, even when the alleged victim was a child, and included details from courtroom testimony in its reporting.
The Gays – Henry and Charles – maintained that the paper was fulfilling its duty to bring information to the public, including the claimant, and that naming only the defendant was unfair to that person, who under the Constitution is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Members of the local community and throughout the journalism profession countered that the policy exposed victims to public scrutiny, adding to their trauma. Community opposition was persistent, taking the forms of picket lines, dozens of letters to the editor, and a petition with 800 signatures. The Journal ran the letters and acknowledged the protests, even running an ad for one, but stuck to its policy.
The issue came to a head in April 1992 when state senator Tim Sheldon (b. 1947), a Democrat from Hoodsport who represented Mason County, introduced a bill that would block newspapers from reporting names of juvenile sex-crime victims. The bill clearly was aimed at the Shelton-Mason County Journal.
"The children are being victimized again when the paper does this. They're ill-equipped to handle the trauma," Sheldon said. "My constituents are angry. Printing those names isn't a policy for the 20th century" ("Bill Targets Naming ..."). He cited the case of a 10-year-old girl allegedly raped by a family friend. The newspaper had run a detailed 2,500-word account of the trial the previous month. Sheldon handed out 50 copies of the paper in the Senate chamber prior to the vote. His bill passed with near unanimous support, and Gov. Booth Gardner (1936-2013) signed a modified version of it into law. The governor vetoed portions allowing judges to order reporters not to identify children named as sexual assault victims, but what remained required judges, prosecutors, police, and defense attorneys to protect the identities of sexually abused children. The law went into effect June 11, 1992.
The Supreme Court Responds
Charles Gay said the paper would follow the law but shouldn’t be blamed for the stigmatization of sexual assault victims. "If the Journal does not name a child or a woman ... then we are joining with the stigmatization," he said. "We are telling them they have reason to be ashamed and we don't think they should be ashamed" ("Will Courts ...").
Henry Gay blasted the new law in several of his columns. He wrote that the law told the press it is "prohibited from providing full coverage of a public trial," that it told citizens they "are prohibited from attending a public trial … unless you promise not to reveal some of the information you learn there," and that it told young witnesses in sexual abuse trials that "we have created a special place in our society for you. It is a secret place, a sort of leper colony where you and grown-up victims of sex crimes can live together for the rest of your lives" ("Legislature Sends ...").
The state Supreme Court weighed in on April 1, 1993. Upholding a King County Superior Court ruling, the seven justices unanimously ruled that the law violated the guarantee by Washington’s Constitution that trials be open and defendants be treated the same as accusers. In other words, although the Shelton-Mason County Journal’s policy was unpopular, it was exactly what the Constitution intended.
The court’s decision did not change the minds of most newspaper editors and publishers. They continued to withhold the names of sex-crime victims.
Yet, at the same time, Gay was widely respected and celebrated in journalism circles, both before and after the Supreme Court ruling. In 1975, he was given the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Susan Beach Hutchinson Award for "exemplary commitment to serving humanity through journalism" ("Henry G. Gay ..."). In the mId-1980s, he won the American Society of Newspaper Editors top award for editorial writing in its Golden Dozen category. In 1991 he won the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington’s William O. Douglas Award for "outstanding contributions to the cause of civil liberties and freedom" and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors’ Eugene Cervi Award "for a lifetime of coverage in journalism through editorial writing" ("Henry G. Gay ..."). In 1996, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association gave him its Master Editor/Publisher Award, the group’s highest honor.
Gay was diagnosed with cancer near the end of 1998. As he put it, "I'm now in the hands of the medical men" ("Infuriating Columnist ..."). He retired December 31, 1998, and died the night of January 3, 1999, at Fir Lane Health and Rehabilitation Center in Shelton. He was 72. Charles Gay delivered a 90-minute tribute to his father at a memorial service in a Shelton church hall January 16, 1999. Tacoma columnist C. R. Roberts reported that "laughter rose with tears and nobody left early.
"Henry's family, friends and readers were there, along with several other publishers of weekly newspapers. I'm guessing that most of us sat thinking a similar thought – that Henry was something of a god in the newspaper game. And when the gods die, the rest of us have good reason to be afraid of the emptiness that follows" ("Henry Gay Represented ...").
Gay wrote more than 1,600 columns during his career in Shelton. For an editor whose paper with a circulation of fewer than 10,000, his impact was extraordinary. Praise came from all corners, especially from columnists. Jean Godden (b. 1931), who wrote for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times before becoming a Seattle City Council member, called Gay "a prolific satirist, a latter-day H. L. Mencken, an editor's editorialist" ("Infuriating Columnist ..."). The News-Tribune’s Roberts wrote that Gay’s "skill, courage and wit stand as a challenge to the trade he served. He will be missed, but it will be a long, long time before he's forgotten" ("Henry Gay Represented ...").
Emmett Watson (1918-2001), longtime Seattle columnist for the P-I and later The Times, called Gay’s career "a reign against stupidity," adding:
"Henry practiced his craft in an in-your-face way that few town burghers can tolerate and no school of journalism can teach ... (He) used language as a weapon – against cant, sophistry, conceit, hypocrisy, crookedness, whatever ... It is true, I think, that Henry Gay was a role model for many of our meekly desperate species. He taught great journalism by example and soon we will begin to miss him - more than we know ("Henry Gay’s Mighty Pen ...").