Melton's autobiography is rags-to-riches Nevada story

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I rarely refer to journalists and nice guys in the same paragraph, but I'm going to make an exception for veteran Reno journalist Rollan Melton.

Rollie, one of the genuinely nice guys I've known in more than 40 years in and around the news business, has just published his autobiography, "Sonny's Story," describing his rise from humble origins to the vice presidency of a major American news organization. It's a fascinating and inspiring rags-to-riches Nevada success story.

The Melton autobiography, published early this month by the University of Nevada Oral History Program, chronicles Sonny's (his boyhood nickname) journalistic odyssey from Fallon Eagle-Standard "printer's devil" to senior vice president of the powerful Gannett Corp., which publishes USA Today and many other daily newspapers.

Although our friendship goes back to 1962, when I was Associated Press capital correspondent in Carson City, we never worked together; nevertheless, I've admired Rollie's work from near and far for many years. At present, I admire his ability to crank out three columns a week for the Reno Gazette-Journal while I labor mightily to produce this Sunday column for the Appeal.

There are two main differences between Melton and many other friends and colleagues in the news business: (1) his success never went to his head and (2) he gives full credit to those who helped him along the way.

Among the latter were his strict grandmother Daisy, who made him stay in school; his hard-working mother Rusty, "my guardian angel"; Fallon High School teachers and football coaches, who taught him goals and values, and longtime Eagle-Standard publisher Claude Smith, who pushed young Sonny to be all that he could be.

Melton took Smith's advice to heart, and today, Rollie and his artist wife Marilyn are civic benefactors, giving something back to the communities that nurtured them on the way up.

I found many parallels in our respective journalistic careers, although I strayed off into diplomacy and "public affairs" before returning to the daily newspaper business three years ago. Rollie knew he was destined to become an "ink-stained wretch" from the moment he set foot in the Eagle-Standard print shop in 1948; I experienced the same epiphany when I wrote and set type by hand for the West Seattle High School Chinook. We learned that once the journalism bug bites, you're hooked!

We both went on to journalism school, Melton on a Harolds Club scholarship to the University of Nevada under the famous - or infamous, depending on your point of view - "Higgy," Prof. Alfred J. Higginbotham, and me to the University of Washington in Seattle under Prof. Henry Ladd Smith, author of a widely utilized journalism textbook. Later, we were public information officers in the Army and Air Force, respectively. In fact, I had several encounters in Latin America with one of his Army PIO buddies, Frank Manitzas, who became a network TV producer.

Back in Nevada, Melton quickly moved up the journalistic ladder, starting as a general assignment reporter at the old Reno Evening Gazette in 1957, when I was a general assignment reporter at the Yakima (Wash.) Morning Herald. Six weeks later, Rollie was promoted to sports editor, then to telegraph/wire editor, to promotions manager and finally, in late 1963, to managing editor.

He became the 35-year-old publisher of the Gazette and morning Nevada State Journal in 1966 before being named vice president and then president of Speidel Newspapers, Inc. Shortly after Speidel was purchased by the hard-charging Gannett organization in 1977, Melton was named senior vice president of that far-flung media empire, and transferred to corporate headquarters in Rochester, N.Y. He experienced "executive burn-out," however, resigned as Gannett VP (while remaining on the board until 1997) and returned to Reno in late 1978 to write a popular around-town column for the Gazette-Journal.

"I decided that I would write about Nevadans or visitors or those who used to live in the Silver State," Melton affirms in his book. "In other words, I would write about almost everyone, so long as the Nevada angle was present." And that's what he's done for the last 21 years.

I made his column a couple of times while in the Foreign Service and again when I returned to Nevada four years ago. When I began to write my Appeal column in June 1996, Rollie offered nothing but support and encouragement, as he does to this day.

According to Rollie, "Column-writing is the ultimate adventure in newspapering." Is it ever! "Write for the readers instead of the newspaper contest judges, get things right but swiftly correct the stuff you screw up on..."

Good advice from one of the nice guys in a very competitive, dog-eat-dog business. And that's why I heartily recommend "Sonny's Story" to anyone interested in journalism or Nevada history. It's a great read.

ANOTHER NEVADA BOOK high on my holiday reading list is "The Rise of the Biggest Little City," gaming historian Dwayne Kling's comprehensive account of the first half-century (1931-81) of Reno area casinos. Also published by the University of Nevada Press with a foreword by Rollan Melton, Kling's gambling encyclopedia is a "must" read for northern Nevadans with a sense of history.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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