Hire people smarter than you.
Luckily for us and this community, Don Del Rosso proved the wisdom of that axiom not once, but 3 times in local journalism:
• At The Fauquier Democrat in 1984.
• At The Fauquier Citizen in 1988.
• And, at FauquierNow in 2016.
But, I never so much hired Don as recruited and cajoled him to come work with us.
And, over a total of 25 years at 3 organizations, I learned from him — as did virtually all of Don’s colleagues. He shared books, newspaper clippings, seminar notes, ideas and great coaching.
A newsroom functions kinda like a sports team: Success requires a group effort. A respected star player — such as Don — leads by example and lifts his teammates’ performances.
I often worked a bit harder than I might have to meet Don’s expectations for the team. And, dozens of colleagues did as well.
Michael Sluss, who moved on to The Roanoke Times, wrote this in 2012:
“By sitting a few feet away from Don for six years, I learned the value of making the extra phone call and holding public officials accountable, even if it meant asking uncomfortable questions. Don translated the business of local government for readers better than anyone I’ve known, always answering the essential question: ‘Why should I care?’ ”
But, it took Fauquier a while to appreciate his intensity.
When Don arrived, the county had 39,000 residents, a county budget of less than $30 million, one high school and one shopping center. Local government officials in our sleepy Southern community suddenly faced persistent, pointed questions from a whip-smart Long Island native.
As former Warrenton Mayor Powell Duggan wrote last week:
“Don was a tenacious questioner, often asking the same question in a variety of ways to try to get an answer. He wanted to get the story right. But the story wasn’t everything; to be fair he would exercise discretion in what he wrote.”
About a year after Don joined The Fauquier Democrat, Publisher Arthur Arundel summoned me to lunch at Merry Oak Farm about 7 miles up the road.
Over tuna sandwiches and Pepsi, Mr. Arundel finally got to the point. Dick McNear — the county planning director, a close friend and controlled-growth ally of the publisher — “wants me to fire Don,” Mr. Arundel said.
Stunned, I stammered something about Don’s commitment to the truth and his dogged pursuit thereof.
To Mr. Arundel’s credit, we never heard another word.
If you doubt the veracity of this story, consider last week’s letter in the newspaper from the matriarch of Fauquier’s preservation movement, Hope Porter:
“When Don Del Rosso came to this county in the mid-1980s to work for The Fauquier Democrat covering county governmental issues, I couldn’t imagine I would ever value him as a friend. Those were days of intense warfare between The Fauquier Democrat and those who were trying to avert the paving over of Fauquier County.
“We may not have thought so at the time, but Fauquier County was the winner when Don came to live and work here.”
As the years passed, former critics came to value Don’s honest, in-depth reporting. He became a student of Fauquier and Virginia politics. In early 1991 at The Citizen, Don and Cathy Dyson came to me with a bold proposal, a detailed written plan for a weekly in-depth series on politics, leading to the huge local election that fall. It would require a major reallocation of our modest staff time, relieving Don of county government coverage and other assignments for six months.
The series — a huge hit with readers — concluded with a 64-page special section. The work won state and national awards. Don and Cathy set the standard for what would become “The Citizen Way”
Don also became a student of land-use planning — literally. He earned a master’s degree in urban planning from U.Va. while working full-time in a job that routinely stretched to 60 hours a week.
He developed and shared knowledge that made The Citizen the must-read source on land-use issues. Lawyers, politicians, civic activists and developers all called him to discuss major proposals.
Don usually knew what would happen before government officials acted.
In the early 1990s, Walmart pulled its rezoning application for the Weissberg tract in Warrenton immediately after Don polled the 7 town council members and reported their intention to vote overwhelmingly against the project. Walmart eventually found another site at the south end of town.
“Eavesdropping on Del Rosso's interviews was one of my favorite things to do when I worked at The Citizen,” Ty Bowers wrote. “If he didn't buy what some county bureaucrat or supervisor was selling him, you heard: ‘Oh, baloney! That's just baloney.’ Or, sometimes you heard: ‘Now I'm gonna ask you again...’
“He was a bulldog. He walked fast everywhere, as if on a mission. He walked fastest to work.”
He had sources everywhere. They called, emailed, stopped him on the street. Constantly smiling, Don talked with everybody. He knew secretaries and support staff members, their children’s names and their favorite books.
At The Citizen, we developed a requirement for every news staffer to offer 5 story ideas — each expressed as a simple declarative sentence — at the weekly staff meeting. Others competed to rival Don’s always-solid ideas.
He loved the craft of journalism.
I had the good fortune to attend National Writers Workshops with Don in Fort Lauderdale in 2003 and Cambridge, Mass., in 2004.
Fifteen years later, he’d joyfully recount the dance moves of Newsweek columnist Ellis Cose, with whom we shared a table in the Pier 66 bar.
When an early December blizzard hit Boston in 2004, we caught the last cab to the station for the last train out of town, after our flight got cancelled Sunday afternoon. Then, we emptied our pockets for cab fare from Union Station in D.C. to my truck, parked at Dulles. We got home in the wee hours.
But, Don beat me to work that Monday — eager to apply and to share what he had heard from Anne Hull, David Halberstam, Ken Burns and other master storytellers.
Don crafted compelling prose and colorful descriptions.
“If gravel could talk, it would sound like Berlin Grogg,” Don wrote in a profile of the Markham dumpster site attendant who approached his work with an artist’s pride.
Of an elected official retiring after 32 years, Don wrote:
With a wink and a wily old grandpa grin, Harvey L. Pearson rocks back in his burgundy leather chair and downplays the once-mighty role of the clerk of the court.
“Now let’s not get into that too much,” the dapper Democrat urges in a burst of red-faced laughter. “You don’t want to hear about all of that stuff.”
Oh, yes, yes you do, Don wrote.
Then, in April 1991, near the middle of a long, very well researched profile of the new library director, he quoted 33-year-old Maria Chiodi:
“When I went to college, I really went with the intent of being a social worker, as everybody did in those days,” recalls the Lilliputian-like librarian, an avid jogger who logs 20 miles a week on the open road.
She disliked that description but found little else to fault.
A few years later, she became Maria Del Rosso, and Don’s life grew constantly more rewarding. They built a wonderful home in Warrenton. Anthony’s birth and academic success made it complete. Don so cherished that life.
Over the decades, Don frequently expressed his gratitude for the work environment and opportunities we tried to create.
In periodic texts updating us on Don’s battle over the last 11 months, Maria repeatedly described him as “grateful.”
Three years ago, after I announced to Don and our colleague Cassandra Brown that I would need heart valve surgery, he said the news shocked him. “I thought you were invincible.”
I thought the same of Don. He ate carefully, drank beer in monk-like moderation, walked extensively and seldom took enough vacation time.
Those lucky enough to work with Don or to read his coverage over the last 38 years remain grateful for a rare and wonderful journalist.
Board of supervisors Chairman Chris Granger summed it up perfectly in a recent Facebook post:
“Don was the epitome of good journalism. He was one of the toughest reporters out there, but always fair. He was a true gentleman. Fauquier has lost an institution.”
A retired editor, the writer — haltingly, with difficulty — delivered this eulogy at Don’s memorial service June 2.