At age 92, Charles Sutton has not slowed down. He lives in rural Vermont with his wife, Cathy, and has spent much of his recent time documenting his full life. In the 1950’s, Sutton served in the Naval Reserve for six years before going into active duty where, thanks in part to his degree in Russian studies from Cornell, he was loaned to the National Security Agency as a Russian cryptolinguist, a military professional who monitors, translates, and analyzes messages.
Following his Naval service, he began a career in journalism that spanned seven decades. Sutton is now working on two projects: a memoir about coming-of-age in World War II and a series of children’s stories about how wildlife deal with global warming.
What led you to serve in the Korean War?
During the Korean War (1950-53), I joined the Naval Reserve. Because I was in college at Cornell University, I was able to postpone active duty until I graduated, but I still attended a Naval bootcamp during the summer of 1952.
As a Naval seaman recruit, I was assigned to the U.S. Naval Training Station in Newport, R.I. for the two-week camp. We marched to all our daytime classes which included swimming tests and lessons, firefighting, small arms and rifle training, gas mask use, seamanship, and other nautical subjects. We learned a naval language: deck instead of floor; ladder for stairs; sick bay for medical area; mess hall for dining; and line instead of rope. A destroyer was a ship, not a boat.
One year later I returned to the same base as a midshipman for a four-month officers’ training program. I graduated and received a commission as an ensign in the Naval Reserve.
How did you become interested in journalism?
Even as a child and teenager, I had always been involved in writing. And so my love of writing trumped my love of all things Russian, and when it came time to re-enlist in the Navy, I chose instead to pursue a career in journalism. I began my newspaper career as a copyboy at “The New York Times” in January 1957, for $40 a week. I then worked as a news assistant in the Times' United Nations Bureau for its 15th General Assembly, remembered in history for the drama caused when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took a shoe off and pounded it repeatedly on the desk during one of the sessions.
I did the usual copyboy tasks but also wrote the daily news piece, "Proceedings at the UN." I next worked as a news clerk in the Times’ Washington Bureau with many duties including manning the telephone switchboard, running errands, and being a ‘legman’––the person who goes and waits for something to happen and then calls a reporter to come at the right moment.
I had a few writing jobs, mostly rewriting press releases, and occasionally a little feature. One of these included new revelations about Christopher Columbus from the Smithsonian Institute. It was amazing to me that the news desk in New York put my story on Page One and asked whose byline to use. But news clerks were not given bylines, probably to avoid having them expect a reporter’s pay. My story did get a line that read “Special to the New York Times.” Well, that was special to me.
I was anxious to become a full-time writer, but the Times’ bureau chief told me, “you don’t get to play for the Yankees being bat boy,” and suggested making a name for myself at a smaller paper first.
So I started at the “Daily Kennebec Journal” in Augusta, Maine, as a reporter-photographer, and on my first day I interviewed a sailor who had been on a U.S. nuclear submarine under the Arctic ice cap for several weeks. The story made Page One. My pay was now $70 a week, and I was on my way!
I subsequently was a police reporter for the “Portland Press Herald,” also in Maine, before becoming its first education editor. This was when education suddenly became important after the Russians put Sputnik 1, the first Earth satellite, into space (Oct. 7, 1957), an indication they were way ahead of the United States in math and science.
My next position in Maine was city and then managing editor of the daily “Biddeford-Saco Journal,” a lively community newspaper which is sadly no longer being published. We won many awards for our reporting and editing.
While in Maine for 17 years, I was active in environmental issues like getting the polluted Saco River upgraded from a waste-allowed 'F' to 'B'–suitable for drinking and recreation. My last position on a daily newspaper was at the “Bridgeport Post” in Bridgeport, Conn., where I was first a copy editor and then its news and front page editor. That was a most challenging and rewarding experience.
I was also the Post’s Adventure Travel editor and did features on several fascinating trips: trekking in the Himalayas in Nepal, visiting the Costa Rica rainforest, a photo safari in Kenya, and a small sailboat trip (called a ‘felucca’) down the Nile. I also took two trips with Friendship Force, an international exchange program, to Japan, China, Thailand, and Burma. Having been interested in Asian religions for some time, I particularly enjoyed visiting Buddhist countries.
While the “Bridgeport Post" was family-owned, there was strong financial support for the newsroom, but when the publisher died, and it was sold to a chain of newspapers, the downsizing began. This meant the most experienced writers and editors who were paid the most (like me), would be the first to be let go.
Tell us about your time publishing "The Vermont Country Sampler?"
Before I got a pink slip, I bought a VW camper for a trip back and forth across the country writing freelance photo features about my travels for the “Sunday Post.” The trip ended when I arrived in Vermont in 1987. I purchased a derelict 1830’s Greek Revival house in Danby and rented a room from a nearby farm family for the winter while I made the house habitable. I worked on freelance writing and did stories and photographs for a monthly publication, “The Vermont Country Sampler.” This led to a full-time job as co-publisher with Catherine O’Kane, a single mom who had started the publication in 1984. But it became more than a job: We got married and spent the next 36 years working on the Sampler together.
In addition to photo-features and other writings, I was the book review editor and reviewed some 2,500 children and adult books over the years. Most of the Sampler’s 100+ advertisers were small mom ’n pop businesses and many struggled with the arrival of the pandemic in 2020. When the country closed down, we still published, and our positive-minded content gave a boost to our suffering readers. It was our contribution. We produced the only statewide calendar of events and wrote about happenings in old-time and modern Vermont with lots about farming and gardening. We were generous with poems. Sadly, we had to stop publishing a year ago due to health and other issues.
Although the Sampler is gone, we are still producing its monthly calendar online and for the State Welcome Centers as a public service.
While Cathy and I are no longer writing for the Sampler, we are working on manuscripts for a book about my brother and I coming of age during World War II and another about how wild animals are dealing with global warming. I am grateful that I am active, writing, and still have my wits about me at age 92!
What are your fondest memories of your time at Berkshire?
We students were mostly all free spirited ‘originals’ with name tags like Mouse, Whippit and Crow. How about my brother Fred, Class of ’47, also a Korean War vet, who hunted rattlesnakes with his buddies!
After the war rationing, the tasty meals at Berkshire were well appreciated. Only one bummer in three years: liver dinner. I liked sports requirements for all students regardless of abilities. Non-athletes could help managers with equipment, etc. and be part of a team.
My fondest memory (thrill, too) was winning the Harvard Book Prize during my junior year for scholarship and leadership. The prize was “The Happy Profession” by Ellery Sedgwick, who for many years was editor of “The Atlantic Monthly,” an early sign of where the future might lead.