Thursday, July 12, 2007

A lover of art, music, words turns the page

For those who don’t know Lee Sutter well, her retirement June 29 may seem just another loss to The Tribune’s fount of institutional knowledge. But for lots of us — especially our readers — Lee’s departure marks the end of a nearly two-decade era.

I remember well the day in 1992 when I called The Cambrian’s office to volunteer my services. I’d heard that the current editor was out of commission for a while, having removed several appendages when he ran over his foot with a lawn mower.

As an unpaid columnist for the paper since 1981, I knew the pressures News Editor Lee would be facing. I had a little spare time to contribute, and I wanted to help.

Without even taking a breath, Lee said, “That’s right. You can write hard news, too, can’t you?”

I’ve been a staff writer ever since.

Lee and I shared so much, dating back to The Cambrian’s final days at the old West Village location, when paste-up artists still used gooey glue to put the paper together.

Deadline day then was pure pandemonium, as we sprinted against the clock to get the flats out the door to San Luis Obispo for the all-important weekly date with the pressmen.

Our pressures and deadlines haven’t changed, but how we get to the end of our weekly race certainly has.

Lee and I worked side by side around the clock, covering storms and floods, fires, accidents and other catastrophes — the hard news of a weekly paper dedicated to its community.

We’ve held each other in long hugs as we sobbed because a beloved community member had died. We’ve raged together at injustice or governmental stupidity. And we’ve laughed. Oh, how we laughed.

We survived moving the entire office. We switched from ancient DOS-based computers to new Macs. We adjusted to new owners (several times).

In each case, we had to adapt in a flash. Given the nature of our business, we still had a paper to get out each week.

It didn’t matter that we had no idea, for instance, what Quark was, other than a basic form of matter or an obscure Eastern European cheese. Did we know how to use Quark software to format a computerized newspaper page? No. Did we do it? Yes. Quickly.

Lee taught me so much, as a writer, proofreader and human being.
As any former Sutter student will tell you, it’s a vast understatement to say Lee is compulsive about grammar, spelling and punctuation (especially hyphens). She’d make lists of common errors, then grill us on them. We’d often arrive for work to find corrections scrawled on Post-Its stuck to our computer monitors.

Yes, sometimes, when we’d made the same mistake for the fifth time, she’d get … well, cranky. But know what? We never forgot those particular edicts again.

My favorite Lee memories, however, are of her dedication to her work, her glee when writing about a band she loved, or seeing work by an artist she admired, or reviewing a book she’d absorbed in a single sitting.

The A&E (arts and events) pages are where her heart was and is. And her enthusiasm would glow through the newsprint into readers’ souls. (Fortunately, she’ll still be doing some arts features for The Tribune and Cambrian. Lucky us.)

Lee is a devoted friend and defender for her cadre of artistic creators, her nonprofit folks, readers in general and always for underdogs and the underprivileged.

She also has a maniacal laugh. Put Lee and cartoonist/musician/artist/inventor Art Van Rhyn in the same room and, in minutes, everybody’s guffawing.

Often, Lee would giggle and, not even knowing what had tickled her funny bone, I’d laugh and we’d be off to the races for 10 or 15 minutes.

Anybody walking through the door surely should have called for the men in white coats. But most visitors simply joined in the hilarity. Fortunately, lots of Cambrians are just as quirky as we are.

So many good memories.

I’m delighted for Lee, that she’ll have her summer and her life ahead of her while she’s young and spry enough to enjoy them. She’ll have decades filled with Live Oak fests, camping trips, jaunts with daughter Stacy, songwriting and singing, playing with the Center Street Mercantile & Blacksmith String Band and other groups, spur-of-the-minute adventures and so much more.

Go get ’em, girl. You’ve earned it. But wow, Lee, we’ll miss you.

Note: Send art show announcements to Lee Sutter at


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