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 The Delmarva Farmer, Hotchkiss, who died Oct. 13 at his home in Easton, was always ready to talk, and listen, to area 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 were others. 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 Delmarva Farmer staff writer 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.
In a 1999 speech chronicling The Delmarva Farmer’s formation, he said the supplement was then without an editor and “rudder-less” with its duties passed on to the general news staff.
“But there was enough farm boy left in me to know that the little farm supplement needed, and deserved, a lot more tender loving care than it was getting,” Hotchkiss wrote. “So when I was offered the chance to edit the farm newspaper. … I jumped at the opportunity, in effect, to wed the career I had chosen to the one I had turned down.”
Hotchkiss often called The Delmarva Farmer and the partnership with the late E. Ralph Hostetter, who later purchased the newspaper and formed American Farm Publications, “the most exciting journalistic adventure of a 70-year career in the newspaper business.”
‘He cared about the people’
Karl Berger, a former Delmarva Farmer associate editor said Hotchkiss was the prototypical newsman of his era.
“He had that gravely voice and always called me by my last name and had that great laugh,” Berger said.
“He was an old-time newspaper man,” said Mark Powell, chief of marketing at the Maryland Department of Agriculture and a former editor of The Delmarva Farmer. “They don’t make them like that anymore.”
Powell, Berger 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 and 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, a Delmarva Farmer correspondent and retired editor, said Wednesday with a somber laugh. “He’d keep typing away.”
Black coffee 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.
Caricatures aside, colleagues credited the paper’s longevity and importance as a voice for agriculture to Hotchkiss’ tireless support of the industry.
“He was in the midst of what he was doing and farmers respected him because they knew he was going to be fair about what he was writing,” said Ellen Davis, former executive director of the Virginia Grain Producers Association. “He cared if it was raining, if prices were low. He cared about the industry, he cared about the people.”
In the years since he took over “The Farmer,” Hotchkiss became revered by local and national agricultural groups and the accolades and awards spread across his office walls.
They include an Award of Honor from the Maryland Extension Specialists Association, the National Merit Award from the Soil Conservation Society of America, the National FFA’s Honorary American Farmer Degree, Honorary County Ag Agent and Service to Agriculture awards from the Maryland Association of County Agricultural Agents, the Dorothy Emerson Citizenship Award from the Maryland 4-H Foundation, the Dr. James R. Miller Award from the Maryland Grain Producers Association and the Secretary’s Award for Distinguished Service to Agriculture from the Delaware Department of Agriculture. 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 wrote for the paper for 27 years, mostly covering Delaware.
‘Everybody has a story’
While the The Delmarva Farmer describes itself as an agribusiness newspaper for the Mid-Atlantic region, with the mission of helping farmers improve their businesses, Hotchkiss felt it was just as much a community newspaper, connecting people in farming with each week’s edition, friends said.
“He was community journalism,” Powell said. “He served the community.”
“He truly cared about the farm community and when there was a cause he jumped in with both feet,” said Kinsley. “He helped teach me how to spot a good story. Everybody has a story. You just have to dig down a bit to find it.”
A popular part of the paper was Hotchkiss’s weekly column, “Rural Ramblings” running for 15 years and later producing the book “Deadline Postings From an Old Royal,” a collection of his columns.
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 Delmarva 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.”
Kinsley, who started as a temporary employee in the paper’s circulation department, remembered the day Hotchkiss acknowledged her writing skill, which led her onto the news staff.
“‘Wow, Kinsley, you can really write,’” Kinsley said he told her. “That was a special day.”
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.”
Denise Riley, editor emeritus and former executive editor of The Star Democrat, said Hotchkiss kept in touch with many writers long after they worked together and was unchanged in sharing thoughts and advice.
“If we did something wrong, he told me. He didn’t just call and say everything was wonderful,” Riley said. “But if he complimented you, that was worth its weight in gold. His writing was so good you just wanted to emulate him.”
Each summer, she said current and former Star Democrat staffers have a gathering in Oxford, Md., for fellowship and it was always a treat when Hotchkiss attended.
“He was dearly loved by everyone who saw him,” she said. “If it was a year Bruce could come, we were all thrilled.”
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.
“What impressed me about Bruce was his devotion to Jesus, The Delmarva Farmer and for farmers across the country,” said Dennis Rawley, president of Augusta Seed in Staunton, Va. “We would always talk about Christ and the church and the dilemmas of the farmer.”
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.
“When Bruce started Agri-Media Services, he knew that there was more work than he could handle, and I was again fortunate to tag along,” said Zilberfarb. “He absolutely loved those years of heading down to Virginia to collect information from the Virginia Small Grains Board, the Virginia Soybean Board, the Virginia Corn Board or up to Pennsylvania to the soybean board, visit with the farmers there and then carry their checkoff stories home to be banged out into press releases, newsletters and annual reports.
“At the Maryland Soybean Board, in particular, we found a ‘home.’ The board had resources and ideas for programs, and it was more than Sandy Davis could fulfill on her own. Bruce and Sandy and I would take the board ideas and turn them into reality. Or at least that was the way it was supposed to work. Bruce had lots of ideas. Some days the boards just had to hang on tight.
“It was his idea to promote the use of biodiesel by distributing it to sailors and power boaters, which lead us to several weekends standing out at boat docks talking to all kinds of mariners who had never heard of biodiesel and probably wondered why anyone would want to give them a few gallons of it, “Zilberfarb continued. “For him, it was another adventure and a chance to meet people and find out their stories. He thrived on those things.”
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 his passion for the paper never waned.
Longtime colleagues said along with the relationships he built over the decades, his legacy is The Delmarva Farmer continuing its mission to serve agriculture.
“Without Bruce, it wouldn’t have happened. He was the spirit of the thing,” Berger said. “Bruce was the original voice of Delmarva agriculture to a wider world.”
“His biggest legacy is The Delmarva Farmer. That was his baby,” Davis said.
He was a people person,” added Morgan. “That’s as good a legacy as anyone can have.”
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