First Posted: 6/20/2013
John Watson wore a lot of hats.
Writer and columnist. Golfer and athlete. Father and grandfather. Thinker and rogue.
Watston, the former editor and publisher of the Sunday Dispatch, died June 13 in Ballard, Wash., just outside of Seattle. He was 57.
Known to friends as “Chick,” Watson grew up in and around the newspaper, said his brother, Bill, whose nickname is “Cowboy.”
“The nickname is pretty simple,” Bill Watson said. “When he was a kid, he had the chicken pox and missed a few weeks of Little League. They started calling him ‘Chick’ and it stuck.”
Watson was born on June 28, 1955, in Pittston, the oldest son of the late William A. “Pidge” Watson Jr. and the former Gloria Manganiello.
His brother, Bill, was born 1o months later. “Irish twins,” Bill laughed.
John Watson was a 1973 graduate of Pittston Area High School and studied computer science at Penn State University. He started at the Sunday Dispatch at a very young age.
John started in the production darkroom and eventually moved into the newsroom. Bill, on the other hand, always stayed in production and wound up in the pressroom.
But John Watson’s true calling was writing.
“When he got the behind the keyboard, he was brilliant,” Bill Watson said. “He really loved the written word.”
Ed Ackerman, current editor of the Sunday Dispatch, said he can’t look through old clips of the Dispatch without admiring Watson’s skilled writing.
“He was one of the most talented individuals I’ve ever met,” Ackerman said. “He really knew how to turn a phrase.”
Watson wrote a weekly column during his tenure at the Dispatch. Later, he wrote a weekly local political column and golf notebook for the Times Leader in the the mid-1990s and a national political column for much of 2012.
He took on local political heavyweights and always focused on local politics. Political operative Ed Mitchell described Watson as a “Pittston Democrat.”
“He was a real down-to-earth Democrat, in the mold of a Pittston Democrat,” Mitchell said. “Pittston Democrats are more liberal than most in the area. He was really on the side of the underprivileged and people that were down on their luck.”
The side door of the Dispatch, which at the time opened into Watson’s office, was always open to politicians and community leaders.
Despite being a fiscally conservative businessman, Watson’s political leanings were liberal, according to friend and co-worker Michael Cotter. In fact, Watson, in his first 2012 column in the Times Leader, described himself as such.
“It has been about a decade, so let me re-introduce myself,” Watson wrote. “I am a Pittston native and a third-generation member of a newspaper family. … Trained in the old school, I am uncomfortable with labels, but if I must assume one, ‘liberal’ would fit.”
Bill Watson said newspapers were his brother’s life.
“At the Dispatch, we covered everything Greater Pittston,” Bill Watson said. “We used to say that if your picture wasn’t in the Dispatch in any given year, you weren’t living in Greater Pittston. The Dispatch has a connection to the community that a lot of newspapers don’t have. John was part of that.”
The Dispatch was founded in 1947 by John Kehoe, a millionaire who wanted a mouthpiece for his political views, and William Watson Sr., then a reporter for The Times Leader Evening News. Kehoe wrote a political column and Watson Sr. had control of the editorial and financial operations. Watson’s son, William Jr., joined the paper while still in high school and became heavily involved after serving in the U.S. Army where he was a photographer for the publication Stars and Stripes. Watson Jr. supervised production and led the paper into offset printing in 1968. At the time, the Dispatch was the only newspaper printing on an offset press in Northeast Pennsylvania.
By the mid-1970s, with his father’s health failing, Watson Jr. became editor and publisher and ran the paper until it was sold to Capital Cities, owner of the Times Leader, in 1989. At that time, Watson Jr. retired and John Watson became editor and publisher.
Bill Watson spoke candidly of his brother.
“He was a wild man, a rogue,” he said. “He was everything that was good and bad in the world.”
But, Bill said, he had an unquenchable desire for knowledge.
“He was an avid reader,” Bill Watson said. “He never watched a regular TV show; he only watched the news.”
What many people didn’t know, Ackerman said, is that Watson was an amazing athlete.
“I remember seeing him play at an All-Star Little League game in the summer of 1966,” Ackerman said. “He hit a home run in extra innings. He was athletic at a very early age.”
John Joyce, president of the Joyce Insurance Group, was friends with Watson since childhood.
He said he and Watson played basketball together at the Avoca American Legion courts, citing Watson as a superb player. He even had a basketball hoop installed in the back of the Dispatch building for pickup games after (and sometimes during) work.
Later in life, Watson excelled in golf.
“He wasn’t a pro golfer, but he was just about there,” Joyce said.
John Watson’s brother, Bill, said John was competitive as a brother. “He was my bigger brother and he excelled in everything; I never beat him in anything.”
“We were playing golf a few years ago and I thought I won, I beat him for the first time in my life,” Bill Watson said. “I was ecstatic. I was shaking.”
But Bill ’s win was short-lived because there was an error on the score card.
“He shot a 72 and I shot a 73,” he said. “We joked there was a two-stroke penalty.”
Cotter, of Wyoming, grew up with Watson, but they became good friends at the newspaper.
“I did my first piece at his bidding in 1976 in the Dispatch,” Cotter said. “I eventually got a job at the Scranton Times, but John Watson lured me back.”
Former Mayor Mike Lombardo knew Watston since they were young children but got to know him well during L0mbardo’s first run for mayor in 1996 and 1997.
“He was always ready to offer up his opinion,” Lombardo joked. “That was always free. But the ads weren’t.”
Lombardo said Waston is one of 10 people who truly made a difference in Pittston. During Lombardo’s time as mayor, there were few people’s reactions he considered when making a decision. Watson’s was one of them.
“He was opinionated, but had great insight,” Lombardo said. “He was Pittston’s professional cheerleader.”
“He would be critical and point out what needed to be done,” Lombardo said. “But he framed it in the bigger picture. It was always what was best for Pittston.”
Lombardo said Watson would be proud of the changes happening in the city today.
“He only saw pictures, and I was hoping he’d make it back to see what’s happening,” Lombardo said.
Jane Adonizio was a friend of Watson’s since high school, said Watson was a “triple threat,” in that he came from a great family, had great intellect and was handsome.
“I always knew he had a genuine love for the City of Pittston,” she said. “He didn’t come on very strong. He was introspective, someone who’s always thinking. But he really pushed the envelope and held public officials’ feet to the fire. It’s such a loss.”
Waston leaves behind a lifetime of friends and family in Pittston and throughout the country.
He is survived by his former wife, the former Bonnie Flannelly, two daughters, Juli Walsh, of Philadelphia, and Pamela Rivers, and her two sons, Bernie and Luke, all of Seattle. Bill Watson said John’s grandsons were his life. “They were really the light of his life,” he said.
A memorial service for his friends and family in Pittston is being planned for July.
“He was a fun, bright guy that probably just retired a little too young. Now, he died too young,” Joyce said. “It’s so sad.”