“Life takes you to places, but you have to be open, flexible.”
ROBERT (“BOB”) SERRA
It was a chance glance at a picture of the Heceta Lighthouse on the back of a magazine that made a lasting impression on Bob Serra. He grew up in Chicago and graduated from Regis University in Denver. Drafted in 1969, he spent 13 months with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam before returning to Chicago. The Heceta Lighthouse picture remained in the back of his mind, interrupting his thoughts from time to time.
The idea of becoming a reporter for an Oregon newspaper, despite never having visited the state, was something he kept in his heart. Bob knew he always had a passion for writing, but he had no newspaper reporting experience. Nonetheless, in 1975 he ventured to Oregon, traveled the I-5 freeway, and stopped at each newspaper office along the way seeking a job. He received no offers. Disappointed but not deterred, he remained convinced: “I knew I could do it.” Perhaps the timing just wasn’t right.
Bob returned to Chicago and married Suzanne Reyes, whom he had met in 1973 during a yearlong backpacking trip through Europe. In 1976 the Oregon idea came to mind yet again: Didn’t he owe it to himself to make another attempt at finding newspaper work on the Oregon coast? This time, he “started up on the north coast and stopped in at all of the weekly newspapers along the way.” At long last, he received a job offer from the Newport News-Times as a sports writer. He remembers the day was Thursday, and was told to return the following Monday to meet the publisher and finalize the offer.
“I thought I was in a good place. And it was.”
Bob Serra on coming to Florence in 1976
Bob was excited about the job offer and decided to take a drive farther down the coast, and eventually found himself in Florence. He entered through the glass door of The Siuslaw News on Maple Street for the first time. He noticed the door rattled when it closed. He was given an impromptu meeting with a somewhat gruff Dave Holman, owner and publisher of the paper. To Bob’s delight, he was hired as reporter/darkroom technician. Bob embraced the opportunity with “sheer excitement” despite having just obtained a job he thought he wanted in Newport.
Strolling along Bay Street, he took in the charm and feel of the small town that was to become his home. He was impressed by what he saw. Boys were playing basketball in the street. On the river the Sause Brothers’ tug was pulling a barge transporting lumber, cars and other goods out to sea. As he walked past a sandwich shop and record store, he recalls thinking, “I was in a good place.”
In the Beginning
At first, the news staff consisted of only a sports reporter and Bob at The Siuslaw News. Besides reporting, his darkroom duties included developing negatives for each “blue line” paste-up news page before transporting them to the North Bend press plant,. Once there, he worked in the press darkroom and developed metal plates for the press, which printed each page of the paper.
The Role of a Newspaper
“It’s all about names and faces” – Dave Holman, former Publisher
According to Bob, a newspaper has the requirement to play a major role in its town. While editor, his goal for the paper was to represent a reflection of the community and what was happening within it. The names and faces within the community were the strength of the paper. He says in the “old days,” the motto below the paper’s logo read “The Voice of Western Lane County.” And so it was. The paper covered “hard news,” vital statistics, social news, graduations, marriages, births, sports, features and more, with an abundance of images of kids and community activities.
While at the newspaper, Bob observed many significant developments that would shape the future of Florence. He witnessed the gradual declines in the logging and fishing industries and their impact on the local economy. The arrival of the Peace Health Medical Center was a significant and welcomed addition to Florence. The Three Rivers Casino project met opposition and fear of its potential to change the character of the town. It has, however, proved to be a successful development.
The community welcomed the opening of the Fred Meyer store in 2000, which had an added benefit of extending the town northward. The store was also significant for The Siuslaw News. With the store’s advertisements and flyers, the newspaper became a twice-weekly publication. The transition required more newsgathering, photographs, editorial pages, feature stories and more. As editor, Bob and the publisher (John Bartlett) alternated writing the editorial and columns for both weekly issues. All in all, the newspaper celebrated and met the challenges of a bi-weekly publication.
The Importance of Editorials
For Bob Serra, the editorial was an opportunity to make a strong statement and was an essential part of the paper’s role and responsibility. As such, his editorials refrained from attempting to “change” the reader’s opinion. Instead, he focused on presenting information that would allow readers to make their own informed decisions.
Bob created a popular feature for the paper titled “Neighbors.” The feature included writings by folks in the community. He encouraged them to write about what it was like to live in their neighborhood and share what was on their mind. His hope was that the weekly feature would be reminiscent of the community news columns of long ago. In those days, Ada, Canary, Cushman, Siltcoos, Mapleton and other smaller towns submitted write-ups to The West or The Oar newspapers. The Neighbors correspondents lived in Florence, Mapleton, Greentrees and other areas over the years. Submissions from long-time residents included Bob Jackson, a U.S. Navy sailor during World War II, logger, tugboat operator, Lakeside vacation cabin owner, etc., and Wesley Voth, a naturalist of Mapleton, see View from Upriver). The subjects varied – logging, dances, rainfall, fishing activity, Booth Island, and sampling the first ripe salmonberry of the season in Mapleton.
Bob left the Siuslaw News after 27 years when he had the opportunity to buy “The Central Coast Connection,” the local phonebook and business directory. When his final day at the newspaper came, Bob paused a moment to take a last look around the newsroom and to reflect upon his memories there. The glass entrance door that still rattled stood for something. It had ushered him in on his first day. In the following years, many others passed through the door as well — some with favorable opinions, others with less positive ones. Once outside and closing the door for the last time, he heard its familiar rattle. His thoughts ranged from his first day to his last day with so many memories in between.
Bob published the phonebook for 10 years. During that time he also designed and published more than a dozen books for local authors and himself. He had the opportunity to sell the business to his long-time close friend and former sports editor, Jon Thompson, co-owner and general manager of KCST Radio in Florence.
When the interview ended, I felt inspired by Bob Serra’s determination to pursue his hope and passion of being a newspaper reporter, despite the odds. The early career rejections and challenges failed to deter him, and he continued his pursuit until it was realized. Others would likely have shrugged their shoulders and gone on to something else. But it was that chance glance at a picture of a lighthouse years earlier, that set him on a path to what would become his life’s work. Perhaps the lesson is that those early challenges are only a prelude to extraordinary things that may follow. Those early experiences shape our lives just as it did for those who settled here before us and shaped the town we call Florence.