Almanac: Covering community for 50 years


This history of the Almanac is largely based on accounts by the late longtime staffer Marion Softky, who wrote thousands of articles for the Almanac over 40 years.

On Sept. 8, 1965, the first issue of the Country Almanac appeared in mailboxes all over Portola Valley and Woodside.

The paper was the creation of three Portola Valley women who thought local issues were not getting enough attention from the daily papers of that day, including the Palo Alto Times and the Redwood City Tribune.

A Portola Valley school bond measure had been defeated. Supporters blamed, in part, the lack of coverage in the dailies.

Three young mothers filled the void. Jean Heflin, a member of the Portola Valley Conservation Committee, introduced Betty Fry, who had business experience, to Hedy Boissevain, a former women's page editor for the Palo Alto Times.

After the trio gathered for an April lunch in a eucalyptus grove on the Stanford campus, their project for a community newspaper took off. The founders held more meetings, made plans, networked, and enlisted the support, including financial backing, of others in the community.

That four-page first issue featured a big picture of Susie Brown getting ready for her first day of kindergarten.

For the first months, the paper was put out on the founders' kitchen counters and dining room tables, spilling into garages. Their teenage kids enlisted their friends to help tie and address piles of papers. "It was fun," Ms. Fry recalled.

Jane Coladarci, who later became a mainstay of the Almanac's advertising department, recalls subscribing to the paper when it launched for $2 a year.

By 1966, the paper had moved to an office under the Woodside post office. Later, it occupied the old Spanish-style telephone exchange building at the corner of Woodside and Canada roads in Woodside from 1974 until it moved to Menlo Park in 1985.

Those first four-page issues featured a major article, at least one big picture, school and church notes, a bulletin board, and a column by a local writer.

Advertising got a big boost in 1971 when Mardell Ward, former editor of the Menlo Park Recorder, took over advertising, a position she held for 18 years. Ms. Coladarci, who turned up on the doorstep one day in 1974, became the powerhouse of the advertising department until she retired in 2004.

"I loved it," said Ms. Coladarci, who started as a receptionist. "I answered the phone, took care of the mail and subscriptions, did the shopping, went to the bank, took dictation from Betty Fry and did accounts receivable."

She was good at it, but had other talents. Ms. Ward suggested she try out advertising.

"Well, they turned me loose with no instruction, no territory, but I was determined to make a go of it," she said. "I went after anything from Mountain View to Burlingame."

She met with success and was given a full-time sales job, which she held for 25 years.

"We started getting support," Ms. Fry said for a 2005 Almanac article. "We knew we'd arrived when we were made marshals of the Woodside May Day Parade."

Starting in 1969, the paper hired more local reporters, including Marion Softky, Marjorie Mader and Jane Knoerle. Pam Jones, who came in 1975 as the first full-time employee in the news department, recalled: "I've had city officials tell me they had to read the Almanac to find out what went on at a meeting."

"The Hedy-Betty years were very special," Marion Softky wrote in a 2011 obituary on Betty Fry. "I could not imagine a better pair of bosses. Betty, in particular, ran a tight but pleasant ship. She was very sharp, very thorough and very efficient. I am immensely grateful to both of them for starting me on a career that has been of great personal satisfaction, and I hope public service."

Ms. Softky died late that same year.

As the 1970s waned, so did the commitment of the editor, Ms. Boissevain, and the publisher, Ms. Fry. Ms. Boissevain's husband, Al, had retired and wanted to grow wine grapes in the Gold Country; Ms. Fry didn't want to run the paper alone.

Mort and Elaine Levine, who had built a chain of 16 local papers in Santa Clara County, proved ideal buyers. They had sold their chain, and then found they weren't ready to retire.

The Levines modernized and expanded the Country Almanac. By 1985, they bought the dying Menlo Park Recorder, expanded circulation to cover Menlo Park and Atherton, and moved offices from Woodside to downtown Menlo Park.

The Levines also modernized production. By the time the paper was sold again in 1993, reporters wrote on Mac computers, soon to be PCs.

As the 1990s surged in, the Levines got ready to retire again. This time they sold the paper to Embarcadero Publishing Company, which was founded in 1979 to publish the Palo Alto Weekly.

"The Almanac was a good comprehensive community paper that people valued," Mr. Levine said. "It was a totally satisfying time in our lives."

In a sense, the purchase of the Almanac by Embarcadero Publishing represented the closing of a circle.

Weekly publisher Bill Johnson grew up in the neighborhood of the Frys in Portola Valley. "To have the mother of a friend start a newspaper and have it succeed was one of my inspirations for a career in journalism," he said.

The new management under Publisher Tom Gibboney brought in modern computer systems, coordinated advertising and productions systems, and put out new publications. And the paper dropped "Country" from its name.

Over the years, one of the best-known Almanac faces in the community was staff photographer Carol Ivie, who started taking pictures for the Almanac in 1976 and continued, literally, until the day she died on June 5, 2005. She often photographed the children of parents she had photographed when they were kids. She even got knocked over once taking pictures at a football game, and ended up in the emergency room.

In 1995, the Almanac moved from 855 Oak Grove Ave. in downtown Menlo Park to larger quarters in a new building at 3525 Alameda de las Pulgas in West Menlo Park., next to Lutticken's deli.

In the last week of December 2010, the Almanac staff moved to the new Embarcadero Media building on Cambridge Avenue in Palo Alto, joining the staffs of sister papers the Palo Alto Weekly and the Mountain View Voice.

Since the first paper in 1965, the Almanac has published 2,600 issues. But today, the Almanac is so much more than a weekly paper. With its news staff headed by Editor Richard Hine and Associate Editor Renee Batti, Almanac reporters, including Dave Boyce and Barbara Wood, and staff photographer Michelle Le, spend at least as much time reporting for online, and the daily email Express, as they do for the weekly paper.

"In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the day after we went to press," Mr. Hine recalled. "We had a whole week to develop stories and take pictures. Today, we'd be updating stories and photos around the clock."

Mr. Hine said he thanks all the people over the years who have helped to make the Almanac an important part of the community, including longtime staffer and graphic designer Linda Atilano, advertising sales representatives Neal Fine and Janice Hoogner, Woodside contributor Kate Daly, and the many former staff members, among them Adrienne Abbott, Thalia Battles, Joe Betar, Xavier Briand, Sandy Brundage, Katie Cvitkovitch, Laura Don, Andrea Gemmet, Barbara Gramkin, M.J. Hayden, Jennifer Brown Hine, Sean Howell, Sally Keep, Peter Munch, Bill Murray, Lisa Nelson, Ann Nielson, Mary Paniagua, Raul Perez, Bill Rayburn, Joan Sellman, Gay Skarpass, Pam Smith, Emily Spoon, Gail Thoreson, Gary Vennarucci, Tony Visek and Rebecca Wallace.

Related stories:

● Marjorie Mader: Covering schools for four decades.

● Jane Knoerle recalls 40 years at the Almanac.

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2 people like this
Posted by Congrats
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Sep 8, 2015 at 12:19 pm

Congrats, tho the price has risen. Used to be 50 centavos; now, according to the title of the email...

"Express: Almanac covers community for 50 yeras"

Granted, the Yera has lost value recently.

But seriously, folks... congrats.

(and.... spellcheckers are your friends.)

Like this comment
Posted by Maureen
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Sep 8, 2015 at 12:49 pm

Happy birthday and thank you!

Like this comment
Posted by Yera
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Sep 9, 2015 at 2:49 pm

ah, the Yera ain't what it used to be

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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