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Harrisburg Independent Press: A Personal History of an Alternative Community Newspaper 1972-1977

by Jim Wiggins

Harrisburg Independent Press (often called HIP) Staff during Christmas in 1972 Sitting on top of and around a '51 Plymouth

I first heard of the Harrisburg Independent Press in the spring of 1972, when I spotted a help-wanted ad on the bulletin board of the Daily Collegian, the student newspaper at Penn State where I’d worked prior to my graduation that March. I was hanging around State College, papering my apartment with rejection letters from various news organizations that had decided they somehow could function quite well, thank you, without my services.

For rent and beer money, I’d taken a night janitorial job at the university, where I would spend the hours after midnight doing such things as dusting the long fluorescent ceiling lights in various liberal arts classrooms. The irony of this was not lost on me. The HIP ad read something like: “Wanted, editor for weekly community newspaper. Must be experienced and knowledgeable in all aspects of publishing a weekly newspaper. Compensation: $50/week.” This, I thought, is the job for me.

I called the number in the ad, spoke to either Anita Harris or Ed Zuckerman, I forget exactly whom, and set up an interview for the following week. In preparation, I lined up my neatest clothing (a suit and tie) and transformed my shaggy and unkempt appearance with a serious haircut. Big miscalculation!

The exact circumstances of my hiring are foggy: Ed Zuckerman, the founding editor, was eager to get out of town. The Harrisburg 8 Trial had ended with the government failing to win convictions for its most serious charges of conspiracy, and Ed had lined-up some freelance assignments to cover the upcoming Democrat and Republican political conventions that would nominate George McGovern and Richard Nixon.

He recalls being prepared to give the paper to anyone who could fog a mirror, an action well within my capacity, while Anita Harris remembers appointments with several applicants. For my part, I did not know what to expect as I stepped off the bus from State College and lunched on a greasy cheeseburger in the diner across from the HIP office on North Third Street, awaiting the appointed time of my interview.

The office was located on the second floor of an old wooden storefront that was slightly set back from the street. Amazingly, that building still stands and houses, if I recall correctly, a convenience store. The ground floor, now a source of potato chips, soda and the like, was then occupied by the Harrisburg Center for Peace and Justice, whose guiding spirit was the indefatigable Quaker activist Kay Pickering. I remember a creaky stairway, cold draftiness in the winter, torn patches of linoleum on the floor, and a center room largely occupied by a typing machine that justified newsprint columns – a Varityper – which was operated with great dexterity by Dick Sassaman.

The office itself was as ramshackle as you’d expect for an “underground” newspaper – furnished with second-hand desk chairs and ancient yet indestructible Underwood manual typewriters with ink ribbons that wound back and forth on large spools. To save money, there were no reams of off-white “copy” paper then-common in newspaper offices everywhere; instead reporters typed their stories on the blank sides of news releases and other scrap paper lying around the office.

At 6 feet, 4 1/2 inches, Ed Zuckerman towered over this scene, looking every inch the young journalist in well-worn jeans and opened-collared shirt. Anita had a knowing look in her eye, also dressed in jeans, and wore her long brown hair in a braided ponytail. Had not the true godfather of HIP, Fred Soloway, the community and labor organizer who, like Ed and Anita, hailed from Cornell, instructed me way back when that “chick” was not an acceptable synonym for “woman,” I would say that Anita resembled a “hippy chick” from central casting. I must have looked jarringly out-of-place in my suit and tie.

In any event, the interview must have gone well because they offered me the job and I accepted. Here, finally, was my ticket out of State College and the life of a night janitor. It was only later I learned that Anita and Ed had one serious reservation about me: Would I fit-in with the community? I seemed a little too “straight” for the position – in particular, my hair was awfully short. It took me no time to pick-up the HIP vibe, and it would be quite a while before I got another haircut.

After moving to Harrisburg in May 1972, I took a room in a house occupied by a woman named Kirsten Patrick (she later readopted her unmarried surname, Moe), who was connected to the peace movement in town. It was a three-story row house on State Street, just east of the bridge that stretched from the capitol building across Cameron Street, which Bill O’Rourke memorably described in his book on the Harrisburg 7 trial as a “commercial ditch.”

When I got to Harrisburg there still was, believe it or not, a working steel mill along that ditch. The house had a motley band of residents. Along with Kirstin and her preteen son, I believe John Serbell lived there for a bit, and Sarah Forth, a Smith grad whose parents lived in Shipoke and who made many contributions to HIP and the Peace Center community during her years in town. There was always room for any Movement personage who happened to be passing through. I remember one morning going down to the kitchen for coffee and bumping into the folk singer Holly Near. It was warmly communal and cheap – which was a very good thing because I soon discovered that HIP could not afford to pay the $50 weekly salary they had promised me, and I voluntarily cut it to $35.

The HIP office at 1004 North Third Street was on a stretch of a few blocks north of the capitol complex which passed as that sleepy town’s bohemia. Along with one of the burg’s two pornographic movie theaters, there was a hippie woodworking shop down the street run by David Hilsinger, who ended up marrying my wife’s high-school best friend and remains a friend today.

I also recall a storefront art studio “womaned” by a visual artist named Toni Truesdale, who produced Movement-related silk screen posters that got plastered-up all over town by the Rev. Bill Potter, an Episcopal divinity student, and his merry marauding band of propagandists. Toni also designed a bus-poster ad for HIP, which while quite artistic, was not particularly successful in expanding our circulation among the public transit proletariat. She was one of a small group of avowed communists in town at the time. I flirted with joining them but decided in the end that I was a capitalist, as my later Wall Street career would confirm.

Incidentally, that stretch of Third Street has had its ups-and-downs over the ensuing 40-plus years, including a fair amount of urban “renewal,” but is still what passes as Harrisburg’s bohemia. A factory adjacent to the old Broad Street farmers’ market has been renovated into a lively complex that includes a large brewery and restaurant, and a warren of artist studios. My three Millennial daughters enjoy going there when we’re in town.

Nearby is a large new-and-used bookstore (remember those?) whose proprietor got himself elected mayor after the downfall of “mayor-for-life” Steve Reed, who, with his mother’s assistance, used to send mimeographed press releases to HIP at the start of his political career (the smell of the printing chemicals that wafted out of those envelopes made them instantly identifiable), and who eventually pled guilty to criminal charges related to some hanky-panky involving the proceeds of a city bond issue.

This was after Harrisburg had flirted with municipal bankruptcy and become a ward of the state. Reed died in January, 2020 of prostate cancer. Someone who knew him remarked that though he was only 70, he looked 80. It was a sad and lonely end for the serious and intensely focused young man I remember who achieved his dream of being a revered city father, only to see it slip away. Hubris. A very old story.

An expanding cast of characters

Ed Zuckerman high-tailed it to Miami Beach for the political conventions soon after I arrived, and his sidekick Anita Harris would depart shortly as well. We needed staff to produce the paper. One of the first people who joined me at HIP was Hannah Leavitt (very top photo, far right). She had come to town with her soon-to-be husband, Jack Krill, a graduate of Harvard Law who had joined a hotshot group of environmental lawyers charged by the administration of Gov. Milton Shapp with cracking down on corporate polluters.

Hannah was an intellectual and engaging Connecticut College grad who was looking for something interesting to do and found her way to HIP. During and after raising three children, she got her own law degree, became general counsel to the State Insurance Department, and was elected and reelected to the statewide Commonwealth Court. There she was held in such esteem by her colleagues on the bench that they voted her the presiding judge. Hannah is, to my knowledge, one of only two HIP alumni officially entitled to put “The Honorable” in front of her name. Her first bylined article was coverage of a Pat Nixon campaign visit. [Vol. II #2, Oct. 13-20, 1972]

Another staffer I recruited early on was Jim Flanagan (very top photo, far left), a graduate student in journalism who also came down from Penn State. Jim was a Vietnam veteran and was writing a book centered around what he said was one of his primary duties during his tour, the incineration of large piles of solid human waste produced by his fellow troops. This he saw as a central metaphor for the absurdity of the war. We serialized a couple of his chapters, the first one under the headline, “Burning Shit in Vietnam” [Vol. I, #44, Aug. 11-15, 1972]. He was never able to find a publisher for his book.

For a number of years, he lived in an idiosyncratic apartment next to the projection room of the Star Art porno theater, quarters he had inherited from John Serbell (very top photo, second from right, and in the drawing by Gene Suchma below). Tall and gawky, with very long hair he wore in a ponytail, Jim was quite a fanciful character, and you never quite knew if all his stories were true. He claimed that his grandfather, on his deathbed, gathered multiple generations of his large, Philadelphia Irish family, looked around the room, and snorted-out these dying words: “Children! God’s punishment for fucking!”

Jim took a job in the state Revenue Department and became an increasingly eccentric presence in Harrisburg. People would see him shambling around the city streets, head down, seemingly in his own world. I am told that he has faced some health challenges and still lives in the area.

Drawing of John Serbell, by artist Gene Suchma
John Serbell by artist Gene Suchma

John Serbell served in the Navy in Vietnam and was a jack-of-all-trades around HIP for much of its existence – photographer, writer, ad salesman, van driver. An affable redhead with a full beard, he hailed from Dauphin, Pa., where his family had a beautiful home on a wooded mountain slope. We in the HIP collective would repair there on occasion for a restorative country weekend. John liked nothing better than to tuck into a half-gallon of inexpensive red wine in the evenings, which he would sip until his speech started to gently slur.

His “Requiem for a Porno Theater,” written on the eve of the Star Art’s demolition in the name of urban renewal, is a true classic, portraying in a warm and funny way exactly what Harrisburg was like at that time and place, four decades ago. His description of how the theater’s proprietor would change the names of the dirty movies in ads to make them acceptable for publication in the Patriot-News is hilarious. “Animal Lovers,” for example, became “Animal Pen Pals.” [Vol. VI, #15, Jan. 14-21, 1977] HIP would always print the real movie names – a source of no small amount of controversy, as we shall see. John passed away a number of years ago; he was a pillar of the HIP community.

With Serbell and Flanagan, the third of our HIP trio of Vietnam veterans (and Jims) was local boy Jim Zimmerman. I remember Jim as an earnest fellow who was totally dedicated to HIP. He was partial to cracker-barrel sayings like, “That thing’s tighter than a frog’s ass. And you know how tight that is, don’t you? It’s waterproof.”

He sold most of the paper’s ads and even was successful in expanding our ad base a little bit beyond the porno theaters. I remember he told me once he had spoken to a local car dealer, who recounted that he had been told by an ad rep for the Patriot-News, then one of the cash cows in the Newhouse newspaper colossal chain of mediocrity, that he would be black-balled if seen advertising in HIP. I wish I had fully understood then the import of what he was telling me. We could have sued Newhouse for restraint of trade and probably floated the paper for years on the monetary damages!

Jim, along with Bill Keisling and, before his untimely passing in the summer of 2019, Dick Sassaman, was one of the driving forces behind creation of this website. He single-handedly worked with the state library to create a digital archive of all the issues. With all his other contributions, he was one of the paper’s most effective investigative reporters. In 1975, he uncovered and wrote about a suppressed study that documented how the criminal justice system in Dauphin County was stacked against people of color. Blacks on average were sentenced to two months more than white people in comparable criminal convictions. It was the kind of news that never would have seen the light of day without HIP. [Vol. IV, #14, Jan. 10-17, 1975].

Still more characters

Photo of Harrisburg Independent Press Staffer Chris Sayer
Chris Sayer, 1972

Chris Sayer was another character in the HIP orbit. A very large man, he stood well above six feet and weighed-in at what must have approached 400 pounds. It’s funny what you remember about people; his rather unhealthy diet is one of the things that sticks in my mind. One of his specialties was a sandwich, eaten in multiple quantities, of white bread, peanut butter and bacon.

Chris was a very humorous guy, always great fun to be with, a talented writer, and a stalwart promoter of anti-war and other liberal causes. He served as Central Pennsylvania coordinator of the disastrous McGovern presidential campaign of 1972. For years he edited HIP’s “Montage” feature, a weekly collection of short items.

Christopher provided many light moments during his tenure, including serving as a model for the fugitive Patty Hearst in a spoof of reports she had been spotted in the Harrisburg area, “Extra! Extra! – Patty Worked in Downtown Diner.” [Vol. 4 #24, March 21-28, 1975]

Chris Sayer, from the Harrisburg Independent Press, dressed up as Patty Hearst
Chris Sayer as Patty Hearst

The accompanying photo showed him in an apron and with a mop for a wig, behind the counter of the Spot, a now-gone luncheonette on Second Street owned by the Greek-American family of former Congressman George Gekas. (George used to joke about the quality of the Spot’s cuisine: “They just grind-up the Rolaids and put them right into the chile.”)

On a much sadder note, Chris dropped out of sight after he moved to the Philadelphia area, until the sleuthing of Bill Keisling uncovered a grisly end. He was apparently killed gruesomely in 2011 when hit by a speeding Amtrak train as he was attempting to cross the tracks along the suburban Philly mainline, pizza box in hand.

Another very interesting character in our circle was Charles Glackin. Charles was a brilliant LaSalle and Georgetown Law grad who specialized in tax law. After a stint at Morgan Lewis, the premier Philadelphia law firm, and with Standard Oil in Europe, Charles had come to Harrisburg as counsel to Bob Casey, patriarch of the eponymous Pennsylvania political dynasty, who was then auditor general and would later serve as governor. Through a family friend, the New York Irish-American politician Paul O’Dwyer, Charles became close to the celebrity leftist lawyers, among them Bill Kunstler, Leonard Boudin and Ramsey Clark, who participated in the Berrigan defense.

A bunch of Harrisburg Independent Press staff in a tiger cage at the Harrisburg East Mall protesting the Vietnam War

While he never worked at HIP, Charles was a great supporter who defended a bunch of us when we were arrested protesting at the East Mall in a facsimile of a “tiger cage,” which US forces allegedly used to cruelly imprison Viet Cong captives. Of course, we prominently covered this act of protest on the front page. [Vol. IV #2, Oct. 11-18, 1974] HIP staff in the photo above were Steve Murray (center), Jim Zimmerman and Chris Fleming (far right).

Charles also became the Berrigans’ go-to lawyer as they continued to be arrested in anti-war protests, and actually got them acquitted after they spilled blood and hammered on missile nose cones being manufactured at a General Electric factory in King of Prussia, Pa. Later, pursuing his dual career in law and substance abuse counselling, he was named by the king of Belgium as an honorary counsel to that nation (Brussels was his second home after Philadelphia), thus becoming the second HIPster entitled to be addressed as “The Honorable.”

Charles was a great friend of Fred Speaker, who, as the wunderkind attorney general appointed by Gov. Raymond Shafer, had outlawed the death penalty in Pennsylvania. A liberal Republican back when there was such a thing, Fred provided pro bono legal representation for people arrested for protesting the war and other perceived injustices. For a time, Speaker contributed to a column of political commentary HIP published under the pseudonymous byline, “R.C. Filburn.”

During his Harrisburg days, Glackin rented two apartments above Artie’s Bar across Forster Street from the state capitol complex, and many of us stayed there over the years, including Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda when they came through agitating for the Indochina Peace Campaign. That visit was covered by Jim Flanagan, who, in the article “Fonda Opened Some Eyes, Did She Change Any Minds?” reported that the Harrisburg school board voted 3-5 to allow them to use the John Harris high school auditorium as a speaking venue. He quoted Hayden’s defense of his soon-to-be wife’s controversial trip to North Vietnam: “People say it is too extreme for Jane to go to Hanoi, as if it were any less extreme for us to bomb Hanoi back to the stone age. The Vietnamese are being covered with napalm and pierced with pellets. Nobody wants to hear her say that, but they’ll go see her play in Barbarella.” [Vol. II #1, Oct. 6-13, 1972]

Founded to oppose the Vietnam War

Opposition to the Vietnam War was behind HIP’s genesis and of course was a dominant coverage theme throughout the early years. This included the Berrigan conspiracy trial and its aftermath, specifically a visit to Harrisburg in August 1972 by Dan and Jerry Berrigan to demonstrate for the sentencing of their brother Philip. [Vol. I, #46, Aug. 25-Sept. 1, 1972] The Rev. Phil, along with his future wife Sister Liz McAlister, had been convicted of smuggling letters in and out of federal prison, but the jury failed to reach a verdict on the larger conspiracy charges against them and their five co-defendants. That alleged conspiracy, to kidnap Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and bomb heating tunnels in Washington, D.C., had been unveiled by the notorious FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, at a congressional appropriations hearing. Four-and-a-half months after the trial’s conclusion, sentencing still had not happened.

Father Daniel Berrigan in 1972
Father Daniel Berrigan, 1972

That soon changed, when Judge R. Dixon Herman committed Berrigan to two years in prison and McAlister to one year for the letter smuggling, sentences that Defense Attorney Paul O’Dwyer described as “vengeful.” [Vol. I #48, Sept. 8-15, 1972]Several books about the trial followed in short order. In a review of two of them, by Jack Nelson and William O’Rourke, Ed Zuckerman quoted O’Rourke’s memorable description of Judge Herman: “An American Bestiary. He is a Moose, a Lion, a Mason, an aviator, a hunter, a fisherman, a Legionnaire, a veteran. Sixty years old, when he takes off his black plastic-rimmed eyeglasses, his face disappears.” [Vol. II #10, Dec. 8-15, 1972]

Local actions protesting the war continued after the trial’s conclusion, including a “blockade” of rail tracks leading into a York, PA factory where AMF manufactured bomb casings. [Vol. I #43, Aug. 4-11, 1972] A week later cartoonist Gene Suchma contributed a panel depicting an AMF executive speaking to a group of peace activists: “Well, AMF got into the bombing game when it replaced bowling as America’s fastest growing sport.”

Gene Suchma self portrait

Suchma was a talented artist who had a knack for driving home sharp political points in a gentle and humorous way. Many of us regarded his work to be of equal caliber to that of the leading editorial cartoonists of the day. Gene recently succumbed to Alzheimer’s, though true to form, he drew cartoons to poke fun at his disease in its early stages.

The landslide reelection of Richard Nixon led to no small amount of handwringing in HIP’s pages. Without a trace of ironic self-awareness, I wrote the following in an editorial that asked the question, “What Now?” We must, I exhorted, “Settle in for a long-term struggle. We must start working now on that blank morass of humanity that voted for Nixon – voted out of fear, ignorance, quiet desperation. Working in ways that don’t threaten them and frighten them and make them hate us.” [Vol. II #6, Nov. 10-17, 1972]

The tribe that formed around HIP and the Center for Peace and Justice was an idealistic and intellectually ambitious group who drew together for succor in the rather parched, conservative cultural landscape of Central Pennsylvania. Largely young – most in our twenties – socially liberal and with vigorous libidos, it was no surprise that a healthy amount and variety of liaisons ensued among us. Perhaps healthy is not the perfect descriptor, but certainly this was the tail-end of that blissful era of liberation before a sexually transmitted infection could be a death sentence. More than one marriage was made – and unmade – during this time.

A publication ahead of its time

In addition to Vietnam, the themes of HIP’s coverage placed it well ahead of its time. They included abortion rights, free speech, equal housing, civil rights for blacks and minorities, criminal justice reform, mass transit, environmental conservation, opposition to nuclear power and Three Mile Island, legalization or decriminalization of marijuana, women’s rights, gay rights, and an early “farm to table” consciousness about food.

The paper also provided extensive cultural coverage of music, books, theater and movies, much of it written by the prolific Dick Sassaman. For me, one of his best commentaries was about none of these things, but rather the 1972 erection of the “Fulton Bank” sign on Harrisburg’s third tallest building. A local boy through-and-through, Dick was outraged that his hometown was being “branded” by a bank headquartered in nearby Lancaster and described the new sign as an ugly “red elephant.” He further expressed his objections with these memorable words: “Now, travelers flying over or driving by can glance up and say, ‘Oh yes. That must be the city of Fulton.’” [Vol. II #12, Dec. 23, 1972 – Jan. 6, 1973]

Early in my first tenure as editor, we decided to sever a joint publishing arrangement with a sister publication, the Lancaster Independent Press, under which we shared four pages each week, generally with non-newsy, countercultural content. [Vol. I #39, July 7 – 14, 1972] We explained to readers we wanted “more room for articles and comment relating specifically to Harrisburg.” Amidst extensive coverage of the devastating flooding of Hurricane Agnes and its aftermath, we figured we’d have plenty to write about. [Vol. I #38, July 1 – 9, 1972]

The paper did rely heavily on advertising from the city’s two porn movie houses, The Senate and the Star Art, for weekly revenue. This had been a source of controversy since HIP’s first days, when its offices were invaded by a group of unhappy feminists. In the spring of 1973, Ted Glick, one of the original Harrisburg conspiracy trial defendants, wrote a guest editorial, “Sexism at HIP,” imploring the paper to forgo the porno ads and encouraging readers to pledge a small contribution each week to eliminate content he and others considered demeaning to women. [Vol. II #32, May 19 – 26, 1973] This sparked a vigorous pro and con debate that played-out in HIP’s pages for many weeks to come. In the end, the ads continued. We just didn’t believe we could survive without the revenue, and some viewed it as a free speech issue.

Still, the paper was quite vocal on many women’s issues, notably abortion rights. A series of vehemently argued “pro-choice” articles in 1972-73 elicited many equally passionate contrary letters from “pro-life” Catholic leftists who comprised a substantial portion of its readership.

Stan Luxenberg from Harrisburg Independent Press, by Gene Suchma, 1974
Stan Luxenberg by Gene Suchma, 1974

In mid-1973, needing new blood, the paper advertised for an editor. I had taken a job as Harrisburg correspondent for WCAU, then a Philadelphia all-news radio station owned and operated by CBS, and needed to step back from my HIP editing duties. Stan Luxenberg, a Swarthmore grad, answered the call. I felt a kinship with Stan because his family was from Indiana, Pennsylvania, which was also my father’s hometown. In fact, my paternal grandfather worked at the hardware store owned by Alex Stewart, father of Indiana’s most famous son, the immortal movie star James Stewart. Years later I saw a Life Magazine photo essay of Jimmy visiting his hometown. He was pictured with a group of kids clustered on the main street, in front of a large sign identifying the Luxenberg Jewelry Store. I emailed the photo to Stan, who enjoyed seeing it.

Stan worked at HIP for about a year before moving on to Columbia Journalism School, where he met and befriended none other than HIP founder Anita Harris. Stan became a financial journalist in New York, and in my press relations work for Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, our paths would cross. Sadly, he died in 2014 of a rare cancer; a similar disease had claimed his wife seven years earlier. Ed Zuckerman and I attended his shiva, held in the Upper West Side apartment he had occupied since grad school.

Moving uptown

In May 1973 HIP moved with the Center for Peace and Justice 16 blocks north into a row house the center had purchased at 315 Peffer Street. Stan Luxenberg’s first bylined article, “A Home for the Homeless,” was about another row house across the street at 324 Peffer. [Vol. II #26, June 15-22, 1973] Dubbed “Sunshine House” for its bright yellow front door, it would become an integral part of the HIP story as the communal home to many of us involved in the paper and the peace center over a stretch of years in the 1970s.

Sunshine House was named and launched on its initial mission as a shelter and rehabilitation facility for homeless alcoholics by Steve Murray, a charismatic con man with a heart of gold-plate who had spent a semester in Danbury Federal Prison for the crime of check-kiting. There he met Philip Berrigan, became a convert to anti-war and other Movement causes, and found his way to Harrisburg after his release. Murray, himself an alcoholic, was involved in a panoply of activities, some legal, many not. For a while he made a living appropriating antique furniture from unoccupied or abandoned houses around town and selling it on the black market.

Sunshine House had an amazing cast of characters move through its doors. For a while we even had our own private pilot in the person of Jim Ulman, an affable man with a full, bushy beard who lived there for a while. Jim owned a small, red-and-white single-engine aircraft which he piloted meticulously, carrying groups of us on excursions up and down the east coast.

Steve Murray had a short attention span and the alcoholic-rehab project didn’t last long. Anyway, it conflicted a bit with a different activity that he and another charmingly roguish Harrisburg character and Sunshine House resident, Al Lamb, were engaged in – the curating and purveyance of certain mood elevating substances not available in stores. This particular brand of commerce brought a tough, ghetto-gangster element into Sunshine House. Guns were brandished on occasion and robberies occurred, but fortunately no one was ever shot. Murray eventually became sober, married a woman with a job at the post office, and even ran (unsuccessfully) for city council. He died a few years ago.

While its primary focus was political, HIP covered a range of softer subjects, usually viewed through a countercultural perspective. It offered an extensive weekly calendar of activities, and Steve Goodyear, writing under the name “Skinny Luke,” contributed a regular listing of concerts which, while including events in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, focused particularly on the local music scene. Steve remains to this day a devotee of live musical performances. Carol Chromicky, a Wilson College student intern from New Jersey who would become a permanent part of the Harrisburg community, pioneered a series of consumer guides that compared prices of everything from groceries to home heating oil.

Taking a “whole foods” approach long before that grocery chain existed, HIP published a regular recipe column under a string of humorous, punning headlines. One of the best: “Won’t you come home, pearl barley.” A driving force behind this feature was Merrie Mangold, a high school friend of mine from New Jersey who came to visit me in Harrisburg and stayed. There she met her future husband, Bob Warner, a Princeton divinity grad whose ticket to Central Pennsylvania was a term in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary for attempting to demolish a ROTC building at the University of Hawaii. He and Merrie later founded a successful chimney-sweep business in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Bob continued to officiate at weddings, mine included.

Chris Fleming from the Harrisburg Independent Press

Chris Fleming, whose family lived in New Cumberland, was profiled as the first bail bondsperson of the Dauphin County Bail Program, a project of the Center for Peace and Justice in which supporters pledged property to help incarcerated poor people otherwise unable to obtain bail. [Vol. IV, #32, May 16-23, 1975] She also appeared as “HIP fashion consultant” and model in a guide to the town’s second-hand clothing stores which she and I co-wrote. Our closing line: “President Ford says we’ve got to keep down the high cost of living – for once we agree.” [Vol. III #48, Sept. 13-20, 1974] Neither of us knew then that nine years later we would become closer, lifetime collaborators as wife and husband.

HIP’s opposition to all forms of censorship was put to the test in June 1975. As the lead article, “Censored at the Penn Museum,” reported, a photograph titled “This picture speaks for itself” by a York photographer, Bob Rohm, was deemed obscene by officials of the William Penn Museum and removed from an arts festival. The photo appeared on an inside page: a frontal view of a naked woman sitting on a sofa, pubic hair and breasts exposed, face hidden behind a copy of “Modern Photography, ’74 Annual.” [Vol. IV, #35, June 6-13, 1975]

In the next issue, HIP reported that it’s printer, Pauline Engle of Engle Printing in Mt. Joy, demanded that the model’s private parts be blacked-out before agreeing to complete the press run, then terminated the printing contract altogether. HIP found a printer in Westminster, MD who would print the photo uncensored; both versions are in the archives of this website. A subsequent letter to the editor, from an anonymous reader, put this tempest into perspective. It expressed disappointment that the uncensored photo was “extremely inoffensive, to an almost bland degree. There is more pornography in your classified ad section.”

Opposing nuclear power and Three Mile Island

Aside from Vietnam, the paper’s cause celebre was its implacable opposition to nuclear power and the Three Mile Island nuclear plant a few miles downriver. The first mention of TMI appeared in coverage by Hannah Leavitt of the power company Metropolitan Edison’s application for an operating license. [Vol. III, #7, Nov. 16-23, 1973] She quoted leftist firebrand Herbert Denenberg, then Gov. Shapp’s insurance commissioner, saying that nuclear plants were “being rammed down the throat of the public” by the Atomic Energy Commission. Seven months later HIP reported that TMI Unit 1 had sustained its first nuclear reaction and was operating at 15 percent capacity. That article was headlined, “Three Mile Island: Safe Power or Nuclear Nightmare?” and the paper made clear it believed reality was the latter. [Vol. III #38, June 28-July 5, 1974]

Harrisburg Independent Press predicting the Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident
HIP Predicted the Nuclear Accident

Anti-TMI coverage continued in a lead story, “What happens if the nuclear plant goes kaboom? (Your insurance won’t cover it.)” [Vol. IV, #23, March 14-21, 1975] This article again quoted Denenberg: “If so safe, why will no one, not the government, the utilities, the reactor manufacturers, the insurance industry, accept liability?” A few issues later another lead article, “Charges of Security Violations at Three Mile Island,” detailed allegations by two former security guards that lax procedures made it easy for saboteurs to gain entry to the plant. [Vol. IV #36, June 13-20, 1975] (Little did they know that no saboteurs would be needed to cause America’s worst domestic nuclear accident in March 1979. All it took was for the plant’s own operators to misread conditions caused by a stuck valve and restrict the flow of essential cooling water to the Unit 2 reactor core, causing a partial meltdown.)

The drumbeat continued with “A nuclear disaster is not far-fetched,” a review by Chris Sayer of the book, We Almost Lost Detroit. [Vol. V #6, Nov. 7-14, 1975]Then, in “Engineer says TMI dangerous,” the paper quoted a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission engineer as urging the closure of TMI and similar reactors “until a defect in the plant’s water pressurization system is corrected.” The engineer explained that “over-pressurization could lead to a large break in the steel vessel surrounding the reactor,” resulting in overheating, a meltdown and deadly release of radiation. [Vol. VI #6, Oct. 29 – Nov. 5, 1976] Again, right church, wrong pew, in terms of the actual cause of the TMI accident.

No More Hiroshimas No More Harrisburgs Button

Critical coverage of Three Mile Island continued throughout the paper’s life as a weekly and subsequently, monthly publication. In April 1977, it reported on a public protest in which helium balloons representing airborne radiation would be released in Goldsboro, a community on the Susquehanna riverbank directly west of TMI. Each balloon had a tag asking anyone who found it to note the location and mail it back to the protestors. [Vol. VI #29, April 22-29, 1977] When tags were returned from as far away as Somers Point, NJ, the paper concluded that airborne radiation from a TMI accident “could travel at least 150 miles, reaching the Philadelphia area and Jersey Shore.” [Vol. VI #33, May 27 – June 3,1977]

With the perspective of history, it is interesting to speculate how HIP, were it still in existence, would cover nuclear power today. The fact that TMI could sustain an extremely serious accident without the significant release of any radiation is, to some, a validation rather than damnation of the containment technology built into U.S. nuclear plants but not, for example, into the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl. How would the paper view those who argue that nuclear power, which emits no greenhouse gasses, must be part of any realistic plan to avert climate catastrophe? And then there is the ultimate irony: TMI was shut down not because of safety, but because as currently generated, nuclear power is no longer economically competitive with electricity produced by the cheaper, carbon-based natural gas and oil of the fracking revolution.

Another of HIP’s betes noires was the downtown Harrisburg redevelopment project called Harristown, of which it took a decidedly dim view in a progression of articles. Typical was an editorial, “Harristown’s Havoc Must Halt,” in which the paper decried the project’s demolition of the YWCA building, which forced a relocation into a temporary facility without the promised safety features required for residential occupancy. It accused the Harristown Development Corporation of “arrogance intolerable for a non-elected body.” [Vol. V #19, Feb. 13-20, 1976]

Ironically, or perhaps inevitably, William Keisling, the son of Harristown’s chief executive, became a mainstay of a new generation of HIPsters. His first bylined article was a lengthy take on his discovery that the “FBI has a secret communications tower on Blue Mountain.” [Vol. V #12, Dec. 19, 1975 – Jan. 2, 1976] Bill energetically covered many aspects of life in Harrisburg, including, in “Block Busting in Cloverly Heights,” an expose of unscrupulous real estate tactics. The article quoted residents of that neighborhood accusing real estate agents of attempting to promote panic selling over fears of racial integration, telling homeowners, “You better get out of here before your real estate value decreases.” [Vol. VI #29, April 22-29, 1977]

Part of Harrisburg Independent Press declaring "HIP Needs Your Help."

Financial decline and fall

In October 1976, the paper published a full-page spread marking its fifth anniversary. [Vol. VI #4, Oct. 1-8, 1976] Under the headline, “A few words from A.J. Liebling,” the feature quoted the noted press critic as follows: “I believe that labor unions, citizen’s organizations, and possibly political parties yet unknown are going to back newspapers. These will present definite, undisguised points of view, and will serve as controls on the larger, profit-making papers expressing definite, ill-disguised points of view.” And further: “I also hope we will live to see the endowed newspaper, devoted to the pursuit of daily truth as a university is to that of knowledge.”

This was followed by “A few words from us,” in which the writer recalled a Sunday afternoon gathering at the Bellevue Park home of HIP founder Mary Walsh, where a prominent city attorney, Frank Haas, predicted to a group of the paper’s staff that HIP “would not last five years” because it did not make money. “Mr. Haas was wrong,” the writer declared. “HIP will last beyond five years, though it is true the paper does not make money. We have survived, and will continue to survive, on the time and talents of a community of support which has grown up around us.” The piece proceeded to appeal for more subscriptions and volunteers.

Some four decades later, this anniversary commemoration appears to be half bravado and half wishful thinking, as the paper soon was forced to go public with its severe financial challenges. Signs of stress had actually surfaced two years earlier, in 1974, with the article, “IRS Seizes HIP Money, Puts Paper in Jeopardy. [Vol. III, #45, August 16-23, 1974]It reported that “On August 8, coincidental with the resignation of Richard Nixon, the IRS seized $165 from the checking account of HIP, putting the future of the newspaper, a non-profit community organization, in jeopardy.” (HIP, like other “resistance” organizations, had refused to pay a telephone surtax enacted by Congress to pay for the Vietnam War, hence the IRS’s action). In response, the paper’s staff forfeited salaries and reduced issue size to eight pages from the customary 12. With a few timely contributions from readers, the paper quickly was able to get back to normal, which meant on the edge but not entirely broke.

On August 8, coincidental with the resignation of Richard Nixon, the IRS seized $165 from the checking account of HIP, putting the future of the newspaper, a non-profit community organization, in jeopardy.

By the fourth issue of its sixth year, however, the paper starkly announced, “HIP Needs Your Help.” “What follows is very serious, folks,” the paper stated, explaining that over the past half-year, it had been “burned” to the tune of thousands of dollars in unpaid ads. “We have not paid any salaries in months…We cannot continue to publish in this fashion.” [Vol. VI #4, Oct. 22-29, 1976]

This appeal went on to report that the paper’s board had held an emergency meeting at which it considered declaring bankruptcy and suspending publication but decided against it. Instead, it would launch a fundraising effort to be led by this writer and Bob Colman, a faculty member at Penn State’s Capital Campus who was a great HIP supporter. We asked for donations of from $50 to $25, or pledges of $5-15 monthly. “We believe that $5000 would reestablish a firm financial footing and give us a fighting chance to continue publishing.” In short, HIP would attempt to become, on a small scale, the endowed newspaper of A.J. Liebling’s imagination.

Within a few weeks, we were able to report reaching $1000 toward our $5000 goal, and by January 1977, in a “To Our Readers” letter authored by this writer, we reported reaching $2000. “Considering the average size of individual contributions, this means that hundreds of readers care enough…to come across with some cold, hard cash.” However, I wrote, “It is apparent that some kind of continual fund-raising effort will be needed to keep this non-profit community newspaper financially solvent.” [Vol. 6 #16, Jan. 21-28, 1977]

Ultimately this fundraising effort stalled, and by April, when it was “beginning to look like things may approach the crisis stage before the summer,” the paper was compelled to lay-out the details of its dire financial straits. In a report titled “Where We Stand,” HIP disclosed debts totaling $1,750, cash on hand of $700, monthly expenses ranging from $1400 to $2000, and monthly revenues of $1800. “If you want HIP to continue, at least some of you will have to come forward.” [Vol. VI #28, April 15-22, 1977]

The weekly publishing effort finally ran out of steam in July of 1977. An announcement headlined “HIP Goes Monthly” stated, “With this issue, the Harrisburg Independent Press will cease being a weekly periodical and switch to a monthly publication schedule.” [Vol. VI #38, July 1-8, 1977] It explained that “publication of a weekly has become increasingly untenable” while stating the hope that stepping back to monthly would represent “a major step forward, becoming larger, more probing, with new features and an improved graphic design.” Without the pressure of a weekly publishing schedule, “We think we can provide the kind of in-depth alternative journalism the capital city area needs.”

Under the name “Harrisburg Magazine,” the publication proceeded to publish 37 more issues as a monthly, including some very fine journalism.

About the author, Jim Wiggins

Jim Wiggins worked for the Harrisburg Independent Press as an editor and writer from 1972-78. He left journalism to become a press spokesman in the administration of Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh. He subsequently went to Wall Street and served for three decades as a corporate communications executive for Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley.

He is grateful for a career that afforded him the opportunity to eyewitness and participate in some of the most momentous events of his era, including the Hurricane Agnes flood of 1972, The Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, the stock market crash of 1987, the opening of China to the global economic system in the 1990s, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, and the near-collapse of the US banking system in 2008. He considers his two finest HIP articles to be a profile of community activist and jazz disc jockey Dan Howard [Vol. V #50, Sept. 24 – Oct. 1, 1976] and a critical appraisal of local TV news [Vol. VII #3, December 1977].

Jim Wiggins appears in the December 1972 staff photo at the top of this article, sitting on the car holding the Christmas sign. The HIP staffers include (l-r) Jim Flanagan, John Serbell, unknown staffer, Wiggins, and Hannah Leavitt.


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