High Country News: Tragedy and transition

The second in a series celebrating our 45th anniversary

 

The horse appeared on the highway in the darkness “with all the feral dignity of a grenade,” remembers Dan Whipple. It was August 1978, and Whipple and three other HCN staff members were returning home to Lander, Wyoming, after a concert — Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

The car swerved to dodge the horse and careened off the road. HCN editor Justas Bavarskis died instantly; the three others lay badly injured in the silent night. Hours passed; a lone coyote was the only passerby.

Whipple nearly died, and spent days in the hospital. Reflecting on the accident in 1989, he describes Bavarskis’ death as “so tragic that ... I can’t construct any meaning to it.” But he and the other HCN staffers — Marjane Ambler and Jazmyn McDonald — were deeply moved when readers donated over $30,000 toward their medical bills.

Justas Bavarskis, former HCN editor, taking a break.
Lorna Wilkes

Even before the accident, HCN was in transition. An energy boom was roaring across the West, and “many of the abstract problems High Country News had earlier warned about had become real,” former HCN editor Joan Nice wrote in 1989. “Most of the big dailies in the West had their own environmental reporters. Did the region still need HCN? Maybe, we decided, if it became more lively, provocative and perceptive.”

Bavarskis — a seasoned writer with a sharp wit — had those qualities. Ambler recalled how he “sloshed through ankle-deep mud in a uranium mine” and pursued leads at the union bar. The accident that killed him occurred just a few short months after he arrived.

So Geoffrey O’Gara stepped in as editor. He stretched HCN’s environmental news into more literary terrain, improved the tabloid’s design and appearance, raised salaries and bought new typesetting equipment. He also solidified HCN’s nonprofit model, establishing a board of directors and acquiring tax-exempt status- — a rare and complicated legal move at the time.

HCN staff in the early ’80s, from left, Jill Bamberg, Carol Jones, designer Kathy Bogan, who redesigned the newspaper, and Dan Whipple.
Mike McClure

Nice stepped back from HCN after having a child. When O’Gara moved on to broadcast journalism, Whipple took over, though a year later, in 1983, he decided to leave as well. He told the board of directors that he knew of nobody in Lander able to lead the newspaper onward. HCN now stood on the threshold of its greatest transition — the move to Paonia, Colorado.

Read more about Justas Bavarskis and the accident, plus articles from the HCN archives selected by Geoffrey O’Gara and Dan Whipple to highlight their time at HCN.