I have often been asked whether there is anything I will admit to as a positive of the Trump administration. Well, there is. The Trump administration has provided me with more issues and incidents to write about than I could ever have imagined. That is as close as I could get to find a Trump positive, never running out of material to write about. Small consolation, but it is what it is.
Where will my treasure trove of topics for my weekly column come from? I thought about that and decided a good place to start could be close to home. I could simply reflect on the history of The Sentinel, a newspaper that has been around for more than 160 years.
However, I did not expect that this column, with the news that The Sentinel Newspapers would be closing its doors with the publication of the Jan. 30 edition, would be my last column for this newspaper, but, sadly, quite sadly, it is.
The Montgomery County Historical Society celebrated its 75th anniversary by holding a forum on Jan. 25 at the Germantown campus of Montgomery College.
One of the sessions, entitled “The Montgomery County Sentinel: The Evolution of Local Journalism Since 1855,” was on the Sentinel and its 165-year history.
I was given the honor of presenting that session. In my research for the project, I became aware of a rich history of news coverage that reflects not just the particular ownership at the time, but, more importantly, the composition and attitudes of the local community the newspaper served. The Montgomery County and Prince George’s County Sentinel newspapers left a legacy of which to be so very proud.
Local newspapers like the Montgomery County Sentinel have played a specific role and served a unique purpose in the local community that the large conglomerate-owned newspapers that they compete against simply cannot. Coverage of local sporting events, for example, comes immediately to mind.
If local newspapers did not fulfill a specific need of the local communities they serve, a newspaper like the Montgomery County Sentinel could not have survived for the more than 160 years that it did. To add to its value, a small community newspaper also serves as a springboard for reporters.
Maybe the most notable Sentinel alum was Bob Woodward. His story makes my point and goes something like this: He was hired as a reporter by The Sentinel after failing a two-week trial hiring at The Washington Post in 1970. After one year at the Sentinel, he learned the ropes and was rehired by the Post. Not too long after, he teamed up with Carl Bernstein to cover the Watergate break-in, and the rest is history. Give some credit for that story to the Montgomery County Sentinel.
Woodward, of course, is not the only noteworthy alumnus of the Sentinel. Robert Pear, who covered this area for some 40 years, started with The Sentinel as did Penny Feuerzeig, who went on to become a top editor for the Virgin Islands Daily News and the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
Hank Plante, a Sentinel alumnus, was one of the first openly gay reporters, and his coverage of the AIDS epidemic earned him six Emmy Awards.
Ron Nessen, also a Sentinel alumnus, went on to join NBC News, where he won a Peabody Award for his civil rights coverage and an Edward R. Murrow Award for his coverage of the Vietnam War. As President Gerald Ford’s press secretary, he announced the end of the Vietnam War that he had covered so adequately. More recently, Danica Roem served as The Sentinel’s City Editor before her historical election as a victorious transgender candidate in Virginia’s House of Delegates.
There were four ownership periods of the Sentinel. The first owner/publisher/editor of the Montgomery County Sentinel was a man named Matthew Fields. On Oct. 6, 1862, Union soldiers arrested Fields on suspicion of southern sympathies. Fields was released when he swore not to publish material favoring the South. He was released on Nov. 25, 1862. During that brief period, the Sentinel did not go to print, the only time in its long history that it did not until today.
Fields died in 1871, and his wife, Rebecca, took over publication handling production on her own until 1910 when their son Clay Fields became the editor. Rebecca Fields would maintain a limited role until her death in 1930 at age 100.
Upon Clay’s death in 1932, the Sentinel was then purchased by newsman P.G. Stromberg. He owned newspapers throughout central Maryland, including Howard, Baltimore, and Anne Arundel Counties and then, with the purchase of the Sentinel, Montgomery County. His ownership period focused a great deal on roads as roads were essential to moving products from the mills, such as Veirs Mill and Muncaster Mill, to name just two, to their destinations. It was also a key topic as his ownership began at the onset of the Great Depression, and new and improved roads also meant jobs.
Stromberg’s ownership also included the period through World War II and the need to rally support for the war.
Sometimes the news we cover may be our own, as demonstrated by a heartfelt editorial Stromberg wrote about the loss of his son, a fighter pilot, killed in action. The coverage during this particular period also included covering the use of German prisoners of war to help on farms in Gaithersburg. Who knew? My question is, why Gaithersburg and not Germantown?
Upon Stromberg’s death, The Sentinel was sold to Louis Linebach and Cy Campbell in 1954. One of the key events during this ownership period was the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. The Board of Education. How the community reacted to the ruling ran the gamut from pride to dismay. While the community, as a whole, demonstrated wide support for implementing the ruling, it did have its concerns as evidenced by its need to have the health commissioner make it clear that Black children did not present a greater health risk than did White children. The Sentinel covered these issues extensively.
In 1962, Leonard and Bernard Kapiloff purchased The Sentinel from Linebach and rang in the period of progressive news coverage to coincide with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The Kapiloff family, Bernard’s wife Lynn and their son Mark continued to publish The Sentinel to this very day, and now it’s last.
The Kapiloffs purchased The Sentinel just in time for the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Civil Rights movement.
During the 1960s, The Sentinel’s reporting on “The Giles Case”, often referred to as the “‘To Kill a Mockingbird case of Montgomery County,’” led to freeing African Americans charged and wrongfully convicted of rape.
The Sentinel’s coverage of civil rights, antisemitism, and racism continued to this day, especially during the Trump administration with coverage of such events as the Charlottesville protests and the impact of the president’s rhetoric to embolden antisemites and racists leading to tragedies like those in Squirrel Hill and El Paso.
Anyone not convinced that the president’s rhetoric is a contributing factor should consider this: The counties that held Trump rallies during the 2016 campaign have seen a 226% increase in hate crimes (according to a study produced by professors from the University of North Texas and Texas A&M). A sobering stat if ever there was one.
From the opening of Leisureworld in 1965 to continued coverage of National Institutes of Health (NIH) to presidential politics to the controversies surrounding the I-270 expansion, the Sentinel continued to cover the news for Montgomery County.
Sadly, like other local family-owned newspapers, coverage by the Sentinel will come to an end today, and a significant chapter in the Montgomery and Prince George’s County communities will come to an end as well. Another local community newspaper bites the dust, and this time, it is us!