Missing Rollie Melton

A public memorial service for Rollan Melton is 3 p.m. Jan. 22 at Lawlor Events Center.

A public memorial service for Rollan Melton is 3 p.m. Jan. 22 at Lawlor Events Center.

Maybe you don’t know it yet, but you will miss Rollan Melton, who died Saturday night in his sleep.

If you recognize the name, it’s because Melton wrote a Reno Gazette-Journal column for more than two decades. If you’ve heard elsewhere of his death, you’ve likely heard the phrase “the Herb Caen of Reno.” The phrase is wrong. Herb was an acerbic wit who loved wordplay. As a writer, Rollie seldom tried for big laughs, rarely for sarcasm, and I cannot remember him attempting a pun.

What the people who may use the phrase mean is that Rollan, like Herb, loved his adopted city.

Rollan so loved Reno that, even after he became wealthy, he returned to write a column three times a week because he thought it was important for Reno to have someone praising the praiseworthy and gently chiding those who misused power.

He wasn’t a flashy writer. For 20 years, off and on, I edited his columns. Never once did he complain to me—or to anyone else who edited his copy—about editing. That made him unique among writers. He wasn’t concerned with his words—what he cared about was the story the words told.

Thirty-five years ago, Rollan was Reno’s top newspaper executive, the publisher of the Reno Gazette-Journal. He went on to head Speidel, the newspaper group then owning the Gazette-Journal. Speidel execs always made a point that it was a group—not a chain—of newspapers. “Grocery stores come in chains,” they’d say. By 1972, Rollan was the president of the very profitable group, which was a small rich fish in a sea of big hungry sharks looking to gobble it up.

Speidel executives decided to “merge” with Gannett newspapers in 1977, as Gannett offered to make a new western division, headed by Rollan. He became one of the most powerful men in journalism, and he protected Reno and the employees of the Gazette-Journal from the bottom-line driven chain of newspapers as long as he could. By 1979, it was over. Rollan resigned and returned to Reno to become possibly the richest man writing a column this side of Bill Buckley.

The only time I’ve ever seen Rollan angry happened after he retired back to Reno. A kindly and dedicated woman who had been a Gazette-Journal executive was demoted by Gannett. Rollan, sitting in my office, spat, “The bastards.”

Well, maybe they had their reasons, I said, trying to calm him. “You heard me,” he said, “THEY ARE BASTARDS!!”

It was the only time I ever heard him raise his voice, and it’s typical of Rollan that he was angry because of the mistreatment of someone else.

Rollan came from an alcoholic father and grew up poor in Fallon. Although he knew Nevada’s rich and powerful, he always remembered the powerless.

As a columnist, Rollan was the town talking to itself. He was sometimes Reno’s conscience, saddened by the pattern of downtown growth. He wrote about it, at least until his columns were being cut by embarrassed executives whose first loyalty was to boosterism.

Many of us might have quit in protest and disgust. That wasn’t Rollan’s style. To the end, he wrote what he knew and loved best.

His final column appeared last Sunday, and it was typical: Battle Mountain’s Cammy Elquist sending a heated e-mail to the Washington Post about a Post story calling Battle Mountain “the armpit of America,” Fallon high schooler Tiffany Black cutting 10 inches off her hair to sell for a charity, Reno lawyer Jack Streeter celebrating his 80th birthday with a mud bath.

Reno is lucky in that there are about a dozen of us in local journalism who write really well. However, there was only one writer whose knowledge of the town’s power structure allowed him to tell the good guys from the bad guys, who also had the heart to write the story of the little guys as well as the powerful. If any of the rest of us were to stop writing, he or she would be missed momentarily, and then a replacement would roll in.

There will never be a replacement for Rollan Melton. His big heart is stopped, and now there is no one who will remind the little world of Northern Nevada of its warm triumphs and human tragedies. You will miss him, almost as much as I miss him.