Lifelong ag journalist Hotchkiss dies at 90
EASTON, Md. — When Bruce Hotchkiss flew from Colorado to Maryland for a job interview in 1977, he’d been discouraged while staring out the window at miles upon miles of densely populated cites along the East Coast.
Later, when he toured the Eastern Shore by air with the management team of an Easton newspaper looking to hire him, he saw with delight the vast expanses of farmland surrounding the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers, and the farmboy-turned-newsman exhaled in relief..
“Set her down,” he told those in the plane. “Let’s talk.”
In his next 40-plus years as editor of what became American Farm Publications, publisher of The New Jersey Farmer, Hotchkiss, who died Oct. 13 at his home in Easton, was always ready to talk, and listen, to farmers and other leaders in agriculture.
Longtime friends and colleagues recalled Hotchkiss’s passion for the agriculture community but also life itself. They said he was a kind mentor, generous with his time, fair in his writing with an unmistakeable laugh and quick wit. They recalled his love for his family, the music of John Denver and Dixieland jazz, surf fishing, Extension agents and their work, his old Royal manual typewriter and, most of all, a great story.
“He’s one of the few people in our lives that you could say lived one of the fullest and richest lives of anyone you knew,” said Sandy Davis, former executive director of the Maryland Soybean Board who worked with Hotchkiss on several soybean checkoff related projects.
In the wake of his death, friends recalled stories Hotchkiss had told them that offer only a glimpse into his adventurous life. There’s the one about him riding on horseback to his college graduation. Another about driving cross country on a whim with cousins. Meeting Walter Cronkite and Frank Lloyd Wright. Less dramatic but equally treasured tales of fishing trips, trail rides and dinner receptions also flooded in.
“We had so many amazing adventures together,” said Susanne Zilberfarb, a former AFP staff writer for and former executive director of the Maryland and Delaware Soybean Boards now serving as executive director of the Maryland Agriculture Education Foundation. “Even the most mundane activities were an adventure if I was with him.”
Born Oct. 31, 1928, Hotchkiss was raised on a 1,000-acre dairy farm in Hunterdon County, N.J. As a young man, his uncle and farm owner offered Hotchkiss an interest in the farming operation but he opted instead for a career in newspapers. The day after he graduated from Rutgers in 1951, he joined the news staff of the Newark Evening News. He was the editor of daily newspapers in Longmont, Colo., and Easton, Md., before taking the helm of The Central Shore Farmer, a supplement to The Star-Democrat in Easton in 1978 which became The Delmarva Farmer later that year. Hotchkiss and AFP owner, E. Ralph Hostetter, launched The New Jersey Farmer in 1988.
Hotchkiss often called his years editing the farming newspapers “the most exciting journalistic adventure of a 70-year career in the newspaper business.”
“He was an old-time newspaper man,” said Mark Powell, chief of marketing at the Maryland Department of Agriculture and a former AFP editor. “They don’t make them like that anymore.”
Powell and others said with that persona, came a manual typewriter, which Hotchkiss was reluctant to trade in for a computer and never did completely, saving his old Royal for sticky note memos an other personal notes. During the occasional power outage, when others’ work stopped with their computers off, Hotchkiss reveled in making the switch back to the typewriter to keep working, and didn’t mind telling everyone.
“You’d hear it up and down the hall, clack clack clack,” Carol Kinsley, an AFP correspondent and retired editor, said. “He’d keep typing away.”
Coffee also was a mainstay, all day, for Hotchkiss, and after he kicked cigarettes, a steady stream of toothpicks followed as substitute. A blue felt tip pen for proofing copy was never out of arm’s reach.
In 2012 Hotchkiss was inducted into the Maryland Delaware and Washington D.C. Press Association’s Hall of Fame.
“He knew what he was doing and he set the standard high and expected us all to meet it,” said Sharon Morgan, who worked with Hotchkiss for 27 years, mostly covering Delaware.
As a boss, co-workers said Hotchkiss was fair and direct, someone they enjoyed learning from.
Morgan recalled his professionalism and fair approach to his work. He was a very talented writer, she added, but “beyond that he was respectful and fun. He just made everyone comfortable. He could be formal and serious but he could also be a heck of a lot of fun. It just made for a great experience all the way around.”
Blind since birth, Morgan said she made no mention of it to Hotchkiss before getting hired and once he learned of her blindness it made not a bit of difference to him.
“I was just one of the gang,” she said. “He treated me no different and that’s just the way I wanted it.”
Powell said when he came to the paper from North Carolina, Hotchkiss introduced him to New Jersey and its agriculture.
“He was the best editor I ever had, for sure,” Powell said. “He always had constructive comments and was willing to help.”
For some, he was even more than a mentor.
Vince Rinehart, a multi-platform editor at The Washington Post, was working at the Star Democrat when Hotchkiss arrived as editor in 1977. Rinehart said he was 14 when his father died and he found another father-figure in Hotchkiss.
“With one word he could make me feel as if I could conquer the world.” Rinehart said of Hotchkiss. “He lit up that entire newsroom with his talent, wit, good humor, strength. He had one of the great laughs. I would have walked through hell for him. He made newspapering fun, cool and noble.
“When I finally got to the Post, he was the first person I wanted to go back and visit. It was like telling my dad I had made it to my dream newspaper.”
While always a spirited individual, it also was through agriculture that he became a spiritual person, Sandy Davis said. During a two-day Maryland Soybean Board meeting, Hotchkiss and farmer board member Bob Bounds had a one-on-one conversation about the Christian faith.
“He just had a heart for Bruce and felt he needed to bring Bruce to the Lord,” Sandy said of the late Bounds.
That night Sandy said Hotchkiss called her to profess his faith.
“We just screamed and had a hallelujah party,” she said. “From there he just took off on his own. Like everything he tackled in life, he jumped in headfirst.”
Like the other aspects of his life, he talked openly about his faith.
In 1995, Hotchkiss semi-retired from American Farm Publications, remaining its chief editorialist and staff advisor, and launched Agri-Media Services, a consulting business aimed at helping agricultural organizations promote their commodity, with particular focus on area corn and soybean checkoff boards.
Hotchkiss remained on staff as Senior Editor at American Farm Publications until September 2018, advising staff, penning editorials and chasing down stories. His office presence grew less though the passion for the paper never waned.
He was a people person,” added Morgan. “That’s as good a legacy as anyone can have.”
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