May 21—To know how the Sun Journal has survived and flourished for 175 years, consider Frank L. Dingley, the longest-serving editor the paper ever had, in any of its incarnations.
Dingley, a recent Bowdoin College graduate, helped his older brother Nelson in the mad dash required to put together the first issue of the Lewiston Daily Evening Journal as the Civil War heated up in 1861, catching the spirit of the North's readiness to defend the flag.
For the next 57 years Frank Dingley served as the Journal's editor, so large a presence in Maine that The Los Angeles Sunday Times called him "the philosopher and prophet of New England" several years before his death in 1918.
Under his direction, the paper became one of the most respected and innovative dailies in the nation, read by journalists from coast to coast as a model for keeping a local focus while constantly addressing larger issues.
Edward Page Mitchell, a Journal reporter who went on to serve as editor of the New York Sun, wrote in his memoirs that Dingley focused on the news of Lewiston, where he worked, and Auburn, where he lived in a lovely brick house on the north side of Court Street, now listed on the National Register of Historic Homes.
"He would brave storm, flood, snowbanks or fire to get an interview on any subject of contemporaneous importance. He would cheerfully walk miles in mud, if necessary, to capture an item insignificant in any perspective less microscopic than his own," Mitchell wrote.
"His vehemence in pursuit of intelligence, big or little, was boundless, his fertility of expression beyond exhaustion," he said, and everything he found he wrote about with "his wonderfully fast-flying pen."
Dingley's energy and commitment to the news is perhaps nowhere so obvious as the story he nailed down exactly 50 years to the day of that first issue of the Civil War.
After the Titanic sank in 1912, a passenger ship named the Carpathia picked up the survivors of the disaster and sailed to New York City.
News people everywhere waited at the docks, a whole pack of them, jostling one another for the chance to hear for the first time the firsthand tales they could only imagine.
Dingley, 72, dashed to the big city, too, perhaps hoping to make up for his paper's initial Titanic headline proclaiming that everyone aboard had been saved.
Within hours, he was sitting in a home on West 118th St. talking with Dr. Alice Leader, a physician and former longtime Lewiston resident. She had survived the sinking.
"I was traveling with a party of four," she told Dingley, "and was about to retire Sunday night when I heard a crash accompanied by a pronounced jarring of the ship. The shock was over in a few moments. With others of the passengers, I made my way to the deck to see what was taking place.
"The deck was covered with ice, but it did not occur to me that there was the slightest danger. A gentleman standing near apparently divining our thoughts said, 'There is danger. The other end, baggage rooms, are flooded.'
"This was but a few minutes after the collision. No one appeared in the least frightened. It seemed to be a fatalism. We all knew that we were in danger but believed the Titanic unsinkable. This, to my mind, was largely responsible for the absence of panic exciting scenes.
"Gradually the Titanic settled into the water, slowly listing to port as she sank."
"Going up on the boat deck, I found the crew was launching the lifeboats. My friends said to me, 'Get into the boat.' I climbed in. I had on good, warm clothes but others who were in the frail craft were not so fortunate. Some of the ladies wore only their night dresses and slippers.
"It was seventy-five feet from the boat deck to the water but we were lowered away without mishap.
"By then the water was flooding the lower deck," she said, adding that it was "a beautiful, stark sight."
Dingley wrote all that and more in time to get the story to the Journal for its Extra edition that day, which carried the banner headline "Former Lewiston Woman's Account of Disaster and Miraculous Escape."
What's more, Dingley knew the Titanic wasn't the first brush with drowning that Leader had faced.
She almost drowned in the Androscoggin River back in 1896, when Alice and her husband John, also a doctor, were swept into the current after a ferry accident on their way to a medical call. Fortunately, her husband managed to grab her arm and swim to safety.
Dingley lived and breathed the news. His dynamism and learning kept his paper constantly on the cutting edge and ever-determined both to beat the competition and to have within its pages every story worth telling.
But Dingley was also a patron of the arts, touting sculptor Franklin Simmons and painter D.D. Coombs among others, and had a religious bent as well that ensured his paper paid a lot of attention to local churches of all denominations.
His "Saturday Night Talk," printed weekly in the Journal, featured Bible lessons told in what he called "a lingo that had a little pep." Harry Andrews, one of the newsmen he trained, said Dingley talked often of "the radioactivity of humor" to get his points across memorably.
Dingley was, at heart, a word guy.
When Edith Labbie wrote about him in 1969 for the Journal's Magazine, she mentioned that Dingley was already well-known at Bowdoin for his epigrams. "He expressed himself easily and his wit was matter of local renown," she said.
Dingley traveled widely, including journeys to the Holy Land and the post-Civil War South. He was once named a special emissary by President Benjamin Harrison to study the issue of Immigration from Europe, which gave him the chance to tour Europe. Dingley typically wrote letters about everything he saw for Journal readers back home.
"All of Frank's life has been devoted to newspaper and literary work," Andrews said in 1915.
Ralph B. Skinner, another Journal standout, wrote in 1942 that "F.L.," which is what the newsroom called Dingley, was a Republican but not a party loyalist, never afraid to take a stand for progress when the GOP was on the wrong side of an issue.
Skinner recalled Dingley fought, for example, against party leaders to help push through an Auburn aqueduct because Dingley thought providing a safe, cheap water source to the people was a public necessity.
"It is an editor's function," Dingley once said, "to support evolution, not revolution. Had Lincoln vaulted from the auction block of the slave to the emancipation proclamation, the federal union would not have been preserved.
"Lincoln is immortal because he embodied the natural law of the political world which declares that to move from one point to another, it is necessary to pass through all the intermediate stages."
That is the voice of progress, the same spirit that motivated Dr. Alonzo Garcelon back in 1847 to form a newspaper to undermine the "old fogeys" who stood in the way of growth in Lewiston.
Not long before his death in 1918, Dingley expressed his hope that "the Lewiston Journal may never grow old and never grow indifferent to its responsibility as a political, social and moral educator."