Almanac

Viewpoint - January 12, 2011

Remembering Betty Fry — and The Country Almanac

by Marion Softky

Betty Fry, who died Dec. 30 in Nevada City, is still making her mark on the Midpeninsula every week, as the local newspaper she-co-founded 45 years ago continues to arrive in mailboxes — and online — in the communities of Portola Valley, Woodside, Atherton, Menlo Park and surroundings.

Betty and The Almanac helped build a "really cohesive sense of community," says Mort Levine, who succeeded Betty as publisher of the young newspaper in 1980. Betty's passing has spurred many of her friends and admirers, including me, to reflect on the turbulent 1960s and the three young mothers who faced a problem of communicating within their small communities.

Betty Fry, along with Jean Heflin and the late Hedy Boissevain, solved it Silicon Valley-style with a startup. Now they'd be called soccer moms; then they were very involved in their furiously growing community and divisive issues in the schools. Portola Valley incorporated in 1964 to gain control over development that was threatening to sprawl over its treasured hills.

About the same time the school district lost a bond election, partly because local daily newspapers, such as the Palo Alto Times, were interested in big stories; they couldn't be bothered with such petty local issues.

"Mimeographs wouldn't do it. We needed a better way to communicate," says Jo Schreck, a Portola Valley neighbor and close friend of Ms. Fry.

In The Almanac's 40th anniversary issue, Ms. Fry said, "The school superintendent said if we had a paper like the Los Altos Town Crier, we could have passed the bond."

Jean Heflin, another young mom, served as matchmaker for the Almanac founders. She introduced Ms. Fry, a Portola Valley friend with organizational and business smarts, to Hedy Boissevain, who had edited the women's page for the Palo Alto Times. "Jean was the cream in the cookie," says Bill Heflin from their current home in Mt. Vernon, Wash.

The three founders plunged into startup mode. They sought backing and legal help to launch their newspaper, and soon ran into the female factor. In those days, many pooh-poohed the idea of three women starting a newspaper. But they also found strong support, notably from Albert Schreck and John Wilson of Portola Valley, Pete Pond of Woodside, and retired Sunset publisher Bill Lane.

Years later, Mr. Lane wrote, "We needed a reliable, tangible, local 'voice' to report about incorporation, school, church, children's athletics, and other activities, and in the process help our families work together as a well-informed community."

Starting a newspaper

On Sept. 8, 1965, Volume 1 No. 1 of The Country Almanac appeared in mail boxes all over Portola Valley and Woodside. Four pages with Susie Brown at her first day of kindergarten on the cover, it was The Almanac's first back-to-school issue; now there have been 45 such issues.

Like a classic Silicon Valley startup, early Almanacs were laid out on kitchen tables and family rooms. The founders' kids helped tie and load newspapers. "We printed the first edition in our back office," recalls Al Boissevain, now living in Indiana. "We couldn't have done it without Betty."

For the next 15 years, The Almanac grew and prospered under Betty's steady business hand and Hedy's careful and sprightly reporting matched with great pictures.

"I admired Betty for her steadiness, persistence and organization," Ms. Heflin says, "And for her ability to see goals."

Mr. Levine credited Ms. Fry with the all-important business sense that made The Almanac succeed. "Despite a primitive technology, the Almanac staff assembled by Betty Fry was able to present a high quality of conscientiously gathered news and sparkling features that rapidly won a firm place among area residents."

Ms. Fry's major task was to get people to advertise. The first big break came in November 1965. When Long's grocery store in Ladera took out a full-page ad, the paper bumped from four to eight pages. This was followed by George Roberts, father of the current owner, who took out a full-page ad for Roberts of Woodside. "I was thrilled," Ms. Fry said later. "It broke down financial barriers. Once we picked up a market, real estate ads began coming in."

Lots of local people also got involved. Kip Pond recalls sitting on a couch as Ms. Fry asked her to write an advertising column about either restaurants or other interesting possibilities. "I thought restaurants would be fattening," Ms. Pond recalls." I just did what I wanted to." Kip's Corner shopping column was popular for years.

Fran Dempsey also remembers helping with advertising, and moving into photography at The Country Almanac. "It was so wonderful with those women," she recalls. They carried no cigarette or liquor advertisements, and no weddings or obituaries. And no editorials.

I, too, worked for the Almanac, starting in 1969, and continuing for 40 years. The Hedy-Betty years were very special; I could not imagine a better pair of bosses. Betty, in particular, ran a tight but pleasant ship. She was very sharp, very thorough and very efficient. I am immensely grateful to both of them for starting me on a career that has been of great personal satisfaction, and — I hope — public value.

By 1980, Al Boissevain had retired and wanted to move to the foothills to grow grapes. The Boissevains and Frys sold the Country Almanac to former publishers Mort and Elaine Levine, who ran it for the next 13 years, until its sale to Palo Alto-based Embarcadero Publishing Co. in 1993.

During her Almanac years, Ms. Fry continued to cope with being a businesswoman in a man's world. Ms. Heflin tells of her attending a meeting of a publishers' association. "When someone asked her to make coffee, her response was, 'Let Fred do it.'"

Other activities

Everyone I've talked to about Betty Fry admires her.

"She was just a jack-of-all trades. She was into everything," says Ms. Schreck. "She was very much to the point — let's get this done."

I asked her husband of 50 years, Dr. Bill Fry, what her interests were. He laughed, "What were not her interests?"

When the Frys moved to Portola Valley about 1958, Ms. Fry plunged into community activities. Besides becoming president of the PTA, she played tennis, did crewel sewing, and joined an investment group. She also helped Penny Patterson to set up the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, where Dr. Patterson is teaching Koko, a gorilla, to communicate in American Sign Language. "She stayed on the board," Dr. Fry says.

After leaving the Almanac, the Frys moved to Nevada City in the Sierra foothills, where they already had a house. Ms. Fry sold real estate for a while and became involved with the local community. She enjoyed and supported Music in the Mountains and its outstanding programs, Dr. Fry says. She also joined the Nevada County Land Trust, which preserves land in the foothills much as the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) does in our area. She was its president for several years, Dr. Fry says.

And one other thing: Ms. Schreck adds, "Betty was a terrific cook; her beef bourguignon was superb."

The family suggests that gifts in Ms. Fry's memory be made to the Nevada County Land Trust at 175 Joerschke Drive, #R Grass Valley, CA 95945.

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