HCN says farewell to an old friend

  • Herman Warsh

    Aran Kessler
  High Country News has always been fortunate in the people it attracts, whether they are readers, writers, staff or board members. Never has it been more fortunate than the day in 1984 when Herman Warsh agreed to join our board.

Herman knew he was signing on for a tough voyage. Circulation was about 3,500, the subscriber renewal rate was a low 55 percent, and the paper’s bottom line lurched from red to black and then back to red, with total income never getting above a starvation level of $120,000 per year. Morale was even worse. Day to day, we were distracted: There was always another story to write and another paper to get out.

Still, every four months, staff and board met in some Western town to take HCN’s various pulses. This is where Herman shone. While some of us were interpreting setbacks as catastrophes, he was steadying us and helping us to see possibilities. With a few words, he could turn a heated argument into a civilized debate.

We saw Herman’s character most clearly when staff visited him and his wife, Maryanne Mott, at their ranch near Emigrant, Mont. It happened to be near the ranch owned by the Church Universal and Triumphant, which most people in Montana saw as a dangerous cult. But when Herman took us over to visit the ranch and tour its facilities, we got a warm welcome. That was because to Herman, the members of the church were just neighbors, and he judged them as such. If they kept up their fences, took care of the land, and were polite, that was enough for him. In turn, they treated him the same way.

Herman was the opposite of a fair-weather friend. When High Country News finally did hit fair weather, he figured it was time for him to move on; he stepped down from the board in 1992. Not coincidentally, the "Dear Friends" column announcing his departure also announced that the paper had added an extraordinary 5,000 new subscribers in 1991, to reach 11,000. Its 1991 renewal rate had climbed to 70 percent. Finally, the paper had generated a surplus (by definition, nonprofits do not make profits) of $50,000 on revenues of $500,000.

Even after leaving the board, Herman and Maryanne remained staunch financial supporters of HCN, especially its intern program.

Herman died on April 18. The staff and board of HCN send their condolences to Maryanne, family and friends.