by Pete Mazzaccaro
For this week’s issue, in which we focus on the accomplishments and careers of seniors, I thought it only right to highlight the most dynamic older American I know well – the Chestnut Hill Local’s very own Len Lear. Len, who recently turned 80, doesn’t look the part at all. Nor does he act it. Not a week goes by when I’m not blown away by the range, depth and volume of the stories he produces, both as a writer and as features editor, working with a dozen or more various freelancers on feature stories on local personalities, artists musicians and more.
I had originally intended to write an article, but found simply turning over the mic, or the keyboard in this case, to my subject was the better idea. Len has had one of the most interesting careers in local media I’ve ever heard. It should be a book. Here are my questions and Len’s answers. I edited a bit for length.
First, let’s start out with why you qualify as a senior. You’re 80 correct?
You really don’t appear to be 80. How do you stay healthy and fit?
I hate clichés and edit them out of articles, but my answer is at least partly a cliché. I try to eat two healthy meals a day with lots of fruits and vegetables, little or no meat (both health reason and animal rights reason) and almost no junk food. For decades I did not eat dessert, but I did finally give in to that temptation. I have exercised vigorously every day for the last 50 years. I would also advise: live with someone you love and at least one animal, read books and newspapers, smile and laugh a lot, don’t bother with negative people, be generous and kind if at all possible, express gratitude freely and try to stay positive (which is very difficult, I admit, with the current White House inhabitant). And I never spend time on social media, which I think is healthy, although I know it is not all bad
A bit on your background. You were born and raised in Philadelphia. Was it East Oak Lane? Where did you go to high school? I know you went to Muhlenberg.
I grew up in a row house in West Oak Lane with four siblings. We were not poor, but there were no luxuries. We could not afford summer camp, sports equipment, eating out, orthodontia, etc. I never knew anyone who went to private school until I went to college. Had after-school jobs to make a few dollars —soda jerk, delivering newspapers, making change at penny arcade, working in barbecue store, etc. Went to Central High School, pre-med major at Muhlenberg College, spent one year at Hahnemann Medical School and dropped out. Went back to Temple for B.A. degree (got B.S. at Muhlenberg) and master’s degree in English Literature. Started on Ph. D but dropped out halfway through when I lost my day job and could no longer afford school.
How did you get into journalism? Tell me (again) about that first job.
I was unemployed for many months. Was desperate for any kind of work. I answered an ad in 1967 in the Temple University newspaper which read “Man wanted for summer job.” That was the entire ad. The whole story is way too long to tell here, but I called the number in the ad and was interviewed and hired three months later to be a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, the nation’s oldest African American newspaper. I found out two years later that when I had called the phone number in the ad, I dialed a wrong number. The Tribune had not placed an ad in any newspaper. The “Man wanted for summer job” ad had been placed by a factory in Kensington, but instead of KI6-1005, I accidentally dialed KI6-1006. That was in 1967. So here I am now, having spent 53 years in journalism because I dialed a wrong number.
How and when did you start working for the Local.
I started in 1995. Then-Local Life editor Ruth Russell, bless her, called me and offered me four hours of work a week at $10 an hour. She had heard that I had been fired from my job as editor of a weekly paper on the Main Line called Main Line Life. She did not really need anyone, but she gave me some press releases to edit and proofread out of sympathy. Almost every six months Ruth would give me four more hours at $10 per hour, and after seven years I was working 40 hours a week at $10 an hour with no benefits. Then, in 2002 I was offered a full-time job as editor of the Local Life section and did that for 17 years until it was replaced by ChillLocal several months ago.
I would describe your strengths as a journalist and editor as deftly attuned to the everyday human-interest story. You take what many would think is ordinary and find the compelling narrative. How do you find these stories?
The older I get, the luckier I am to do the kind of work I love doing. The reason I have not retired, although I have collected Social Security for 15 years, is that I love meeting and writing about interesting, creative, good-hearted people who might not otherwise get the attention they deserve. I would rather do that than lie on a beach or stand in line at an airport. I am basically always on the lookout for stories with a local angle, and my wife is, too. Whenever I see a newspaper of any kind anywhere, I pick it up. We have both found so many people who were written about, however, briefly, in the Inquirer, weekly newspapers, the Philadelphia Gay News, even the New York Times recently, that turned into articles for me. And of course, people call and email me with suggestions. As long as there is a local angle, I will try to contact the person (thank goodness for email), especially if it is a person who is doing something great in the community. A former long-time editor of the Local, the late Marie Jones, would turn down a story idea of mine if the subject was not living or working in or very close to Chestnut Hill. If a person has a great human-interest story, I will stretch the “local angle” to include other communities like Fort Washington, Ambler, etc. I believe if someone reads a truly compelling story, he/she will not care if the person written about lives right in Chestnut Hill or not.
How do you find the time to be so prolific? Do you sleep?
I sleep about seven hours a day. The rest of the time I am eating, watching some TV, reading newspapers and books, looking for story ideas, following up on the ideas, doing interviews, writing stories, assigning stories to freelancers, working with their articles and thanking them for their efforts. Not having a cell phone and spending no time on social media gives me extra time for articles. I work on stories almost 365 days a year. In the past 18 years I have taken a total of about eight days of vacation. (My wife travels with her twin sister.) I am very lucky because every morning I get up and look forward to working on stories. If I went on vacation, I would be thinking about the stories I should be working on. I don’t think of myself as obsessive/compulsive, but when I read these words, it does seem to fit the definition.
What’s one of your favorite stories ever that you wrote for the Local?
There are so many, but I will mention two. One is an African American gay Baptist man who was a professional opera singer, but he met and married a white male rabbi. He converted to Judaism, gave up Verdi and Puccini and now sings in Yiddish at synagogues and community centers all over North America. The second is Bettina Hoerlin, a Chestnut Hill resident and Penn professor who was born in 1939, one year after her parents escaped from the Nazis in Germany. In 1997, when Bettina and her husband, Gino Segre, whose Jewish parents had escaped from Fascist Italy, were moving from Mt. Airy into a smaller home in Chestnut Hill, they discovered a cardboard box filled with love letters written in German by Bettina’s parents to each other in the 1930s while living in Nazi Germany. Years later, Bettina wrote a beautifully written book, “Steps of Courage,” based on her parents’ letters. The book, as well as the many vintage photos in it, is simply magnificent! It could make a great movie.
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