Graced upon thousands of The New York Times editions read by government leaders around the world, several books available in a minute’s notice at institutions across the country and the one local newspaper in Claremont for the past 180 years remains the name of a man who was both professionally and self-described as a cabinetmaker, carpenter, cook and deckhand on a schooner, ditch digger, dock builder, journalist and reporter. Nelson Steele Bryant, “supreme chronicler” of the outdoors and his personal love of hunting and fishing, said goodbye to the world he admirably recorded with pen and paper from the banks of free-flowing streams populated with striped bass to dense forests occupied by evasive deer on Saturday, Jan. 11 at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital in Oak Bluffs, Mass. He was 96.
If you were a reader of the Daily Eagle in the 1950s and 60s, you most likely knew — and still know of — Mr. Bryant and his impact on local journalism up and down the “Twin State Valley.” First a reporter stationed at the Daily Eagle’s Lebanon office — which at the time was responsible for covering Claremont, Hanover, Lebanon and Newport in New Hampshire and Norwich, Springfield, White River Junction and Windsor in Vermont — and then the managing editor of the “hot type” newspaper for 14 years, Mr. Bryant oversaw the paper during a time of impressive recognition for excellence in reporting, feature articles, photography and editorials among small New England dailies. With Mr. Bryant in charge of the newsroom, a day at the local newspaper was not as dull or predictable as you might expect. From sudden selectboard and police chief resignations to an exclusive interview with J.D. Salinger written by high school student Shirlie Blaney that made national headlines in Newsweek, what was printed in the afternoon edition of the paper could never be anticipated — at least not with a striking degree of accuracy.
Interest in journalism eluded Mr. Bryant for most of his youth. A prowler of the Martha’s Vineyard’s West Tisbury woods from a young age, he first set his eyes on earning a masters degree from Dartmouth College. But, after just one semester — a summer session — at the institution, Mr. Bryant had a life-changing thought that he shared with The New York Times in 2017: “What am I doing here when guys are fighting and dying?” He would attempt to join Dartmouth’s Naval Reserve Officer Program but in time fail due to being born blind in his right eye. Soon thereafter, in 1942, Mr. Bryant enlisted in the Army. He would serve as a World War II paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division’s 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment alongside fellow paratroopers that jumped into Normandy in 1944. Just months prior, Mr. Bryant visited his family before going overseas with fellow paratroopers in time to make the jump the night before D-Day. As reflected upon in his 2014 memoir, “Mill Pond Joe: Naturalist, Writer, Journalist, and New York Times Columnist,” he spent his last hour prior to departing for France with Nancy, his youngest sister, who sat on the floor beside him. Mr. Bryant would continue his service in the engagements in Holland and the Battle of the Bulge. In the time that he served, Mr. Bryant would be wounded at Normandy and Holland, but ultimately make it back to the states in good health. Following the end of the war, Mr. Bryant would return home and continue his education at Dartmouth College, which would result in a bachelor’s degree in English in 1952. It was a few years post-graduation that Dartmouth classmate Phil Booth reached out to suggest that Mr. Bryant should apply to be a reporter at a local newspaper. Living in Norwich, Vermont at the time, he met with Mel Wax, the then-managing editor of the Daily Eagle, which was one of 12 daily newspapers in the state at the time, and acquired the position.
In surprising fashion, Mr. Bryant’s military experience came in handy when consulting with ill-tempered residents. During one somewhat peaceful morning, a “strapping young man” made his way into the office, where he requested the managing editor by name. The man informed Mr. Bryant that he had been present in court earlier in the day and made it clear that his name was not to be put in the paper. After siding against the resident’s request, Mr. Bryant was made aware that he was no ordinary local, but the New Hampshire middleweight boxing champion. “The typewriters of my newsroom staffers stopped clicking,” Mr. Bryant noted in his 2014 memoir. But the standoff soon ended when Mr. Bryant mentioned his hand-to-hand combat experience from the war, which the young man did not want any part of.
Moments like these make up a majority of the content in Mr. Bryant’s amusing 2014 memoir, but the rest consists of heartfelt and tell-all messages that reflect on individuals’ time at the Daily Eagle. An email correspondence mentioned in the memoir with Dan North, a reporter and lifelong friend of Mr. Bryant, noted how restless the office could be at times.
“At what journalism school could you be a part of this scene?… The sports editor (Charlie Spencer) is twirling his propeller beanie, the state editor (Howard Swain) is doing satirical cartoons of staff members and laughing them as paper airplanes. The society editor (Jeannie Begg) is teaching me how to fold copy paper like they did when she was at the HERALD TRIBUNE. The managing editor standing on his desk…”
North further remarked that he found the opportunity to learn journalistic principles in real-world situations worthwhile.
“I loved working at the Eagle from the start. I learned more about journalism at the Eagle than I think I could have learned at journalism school. I also learned about people.”
Archie Mountain, the current managing editor of the Argus Champion and a journalist who was recounted by Mr. Bryant himself as, “a young man who relished journalism” who reported to work at 6 a.m. every day, clearly remembers his late boss’s presence in the newsroom and the value that came from learning alongside him.
“The education from [the entire staff], the education I got [in the newsroom] was one that I never could have got in college,” Mountain said. “They were good people. You just listened to them and you learned. It was a good way for somebody — I know for myself — to learn, and that is what I wanted to do.”
Charles Caruso, another reporter employed by Mr. Bryant who would later become a lifelong friend, phrased his respective two years worth of experiences as the “most enjoyable years of my five decades in journalism.” In his final day with the Daily Eagle after landing a position with the Knickerbocker News in Albany, New York, Caruso, in an email correspondence for Mr. Bryant’s 2014 memoir, told him that he, “cried all the way down to New York — five hours.”
“On my last day in Claremont we were loading the car when I saw Nelson shoveling snow down the block. For some reason, I shook my fist at him,” wrote Caruso. “Then we started south and it slowly got dark and Claremont just disappeared, like Brigadoon, and I started crying and couldn’t stop. I knew I had lost something I could never get back.”
During his tenure with the Daily Eagle, Mr. Bryant would use any time available to work on the saga of Mill Pond Joe’s adventures — the eventual name used for his memoir — often in the comfort of his boy’s bedroom floor. He aspired to accomplish a great deal throughout his life.
Then serendipity hit.
A letter from Swain, a former colleague at the Daily Eagle, alerted Mr. Bryant to the passing of New York Times outdoors columnist Oscar Godbout. With an unwavering passion for nature and to represent Martha’s Vineyard in a journalistic capacity, combined with limited pay in Claremont that did not sufficiently support a growing family, Mr. Bryant left the Daily Eagle in 1966 to build docks. In 1967, he got the column position with The New York Times and thus began what was to become 2,500 columns.
For nearly four decades the sports section of The New York Times would include the intriguing tidbits and fascinating adventures of Mr. Bryant four to five times a week under the headlines “Wood, Field and Stream” and “Outdoors,” which would often feature expeditions with his two sons, accompanied with pen-and-ink drawings by Glenn Wolff. The topics would range wildly, but more than 5% were devoted to ecological topics — including acid rain; the survival struggles of striped bass and Atlantic salmon; the ubiquitous presence of polychlorinated biphenyls in lakes, rivers and oceans; and the long but successful fight to require the use of non-toxic steel pellets for waterfowling.
Mr. Bryant was born in Red Bank, N.J., on April 22, 1923, to parents Nelson and Olga (Griffin) Bryant. His father, Nelson, would lose his job as an accountant in Boston, and so the family moved to West Tisbury in 1932. Mr. Bryant graduated from Vineyard Haven High School in 1941. He married Jean Morgan in 1946, and they had two sons and two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce in 1989, and Jean Bryant died in 2012. Besides Ms. Kirchmeier, Mr. Bryant is survived by his sons, Stephen and Jeffrey; his daughter Mary Bryant Bailey; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His daughter Alison died in 2009. He was the author of “Fresh Air, Bright Water: Adventures in Wood, Field and Stream” (1971); “The Wildfowler’s World” (1973, with Hanson Carroll); “Outdoors,” a 1990 collection of his columns; and a memoir, “Mill Pond Joe: Naturalist, Writer, Journalist and New York Times Columnist” (2014).
In a final column printed in The Martha’s Vineyard Times in 2012, he confessed to being a romantic about the outdoor life.
“More than anything else, I wanted to be alone in the forest primeval,” he wrote. “I didn’t want to encounter another hunter. I enjoyed sitting on a rocky ledge looking down into the valley through which an enchanting trout river, the Dead Diamond, flows. I enjoyed sharing my backpack lunch with chickadees and chipmunks, then wandering so deep into the woods, I knew that darkness would fall before I made it back to the cabin.”
On his final day at the Daily Eagle — sometime in late September 1966 — fellow colleagues presented the departing managing editor with a special, not-for-the-public abbreviated version of the paper that bid him farewell, reminisced on old times and wished him the best of luck — all things pertinent and concerned on the present. However, there is one note from this special issue written by Charlie Spencer that speaks true to this day — especially on this day.
“‘Nelse’ was, and is, the best thing that happened to any eagle since they were declared protected birds… Most of all, we remember — N.B. — his honesty, that made things harder on himself than anyone else; his sense of humor, that made newsrooming with him an anticipated pleasure day after day, week after week, year after year. A boss who could say ‘do as I do,’ but never did. A Nelse of all trades — and master of all — and, above all, a friend to all, an example to all, an inspiration to all.”