Nelson Sigelman is an outdoorsman, a sportsman, a hunter, a fisherman. True enough, all of it, but at his core he’s a journalist. Not a journalist in the overused, hollowed-out way the word is often bandied these days, applied to any anchor, tweeter, blogger, gawker, celebrity, or political sycophant who lives and dies on ratings, clicks, and SEO, but one who would claim the job title that was years ago a distinction. Nelson is a journalist, a reporter, born to do the work, the instincts built in, although as a young man he didn’t know it, so he was a late starter.
This month, leaving his job as editor of The Martha’s Vineyard Times, Nelson takes with him a reputation for a deeply sympathetic and knowing understanding of the people of the Vineyard community, whose exploits, misadventures, issues, follies, and daily doings he’s examined and reported during 26 years as a columnist, reporter, and editor for the newspaper. He is regarded admiringly by the low and the high, the long-timers and the newcomers, for the care, the detail, and the unblinking forthrightness of his reporting work. His critics have been mostly those who did not want a story told, or wanted it told the way they imagined it might serve their purposes, not the way it was.
Growing up in Dorchester and Hyde Park and at Boston English High School, Nelson knew the score in scrappy neighborhoods. After college he traveled to Japan, where for years he taught English and practiced kendo, the highly disciplined martial art. In 1980 he returned to Boston and became a hospitality guy, working for a company that owned restaurants and marinas. He began visiting the Vineyard for the fishing, and he liked it so much that he looked for a job and found one at The Times in 1988. I hired him as an advertising salesman, and he moved to the Island.
An unlikely advertising salesman without experience, he was paired with Don Lyons, the estimable former Episcopal minister, himself an unlikely salesman. They made an odd couple, but a successful one. Nelson sold ads and fished, and by 1990, he thought The Times ought to add a fishing column, which he would write. It was a hit, and apart from the tackle shop owners and especially his friend, the fishing and hunting guru Cooper Gilkes, Nelson became the go-to guy for everything about fishing tackle, bait, lures, and carefully generalized hints about where the big ones were biting. His first “Gone Fishin’” column began, in the close-up and immediate tone common to his writing: “First the rumor, then the fish. You start seeing a few trucks with rods on top, and realize that maybe it is time to take care of all those things you kept talking about doing all winter: Clean the reels, respool the line, tie some leaders, change the hooks … but there’s no time now. The fish are here.” This was a writer who knew his subjects where they lived, and his readers recognized it.
“The best compliment I continue to get,” he told me, “and the one that means the most, is when Norma tells me she ran into someone who said he or she doesn’t like to fish but likes to read my column. I’ve enjoyed the freedom of a fishing column on an Island where fishing means something to our readers, and it is a shared culture. I’ve used the column to have fun and also to advocate for things I care about: fishing access and conservation. I became a hunter. My dog Tashmoo, and Coop, made me a duck hunter. My love of the outdoors and venison made me a deer hunter.”
The former Norma Clinton is Nelson’s wife. Like the reporter he would become, he knew a promising story when he saw one, so he began staking out the young woman who worked at Moonstone, the Main Street, Tisbury, jewelry store. Norma and he married in 1990, and their daughter Marlan was born in 1991. He frequently celebrated in his column Norma’s dependable cheerfulness and forbearance as his job, his hunting, and his fishing had him up early, out late, and sometimes overnight when the bass were biting, and as the deer, ducks, turkeys, and geese hung in multiplying numbers in the backyard of their Vineyard Haven home.
Nelson’s hunter self brought his sporting passion into the newspaper office too. He shot one of the wild, prolific Vineyard road-running turkeys and brought it to reporter Janet Hefler, a colleague of gleaming good nature, to cook for Thanksgiving and to write about the ordeal. The goal was to give readers the truth about whether Island celebrants would give thanks for a non-Butterball at the holiday meal. There were feathers everywhere, and the verdict was mixed. He went on to reward us with deep-fried smelts he had bought, whose fragrance commanded the entire building for a week, and may even have seasoned some of that week’s reporting.
Soon, Nelson began to tell stories about the fishermen he met, about the fish they caught, about their kids and families, their sadnesses and even tragedies, always in penetrating but humane terms. He taught himself to write. He began to pester the paper’s news reporters with tips on stories they ought to write or ways in which the stories they had written got some detail just a bit wrong, or left another out. Over the years, Nelson has often credited me with seeing in him, the fishing columnist, a latent, promising news reporting talent, but really any editor or newspaper owner with a pulse would have noticed that there were valuable clues in Nelson’s eagerness, watchfulness, interest, and diligence, that here was a guy who could bring a lot more value to the newspaper’s reporting staff than to its sales staff, and that maybe someone with more commercial instincts would make a killer salesperson. I asked Nelson to join the reporters, and The Times has now enjoyed for more than two decades the fruits of his writing work.
Nelson’s reporting won many awards from regional press organizations and from outdoor writing associations. And in one remarkable year, he remembers, he got an award for community reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association, and won the fourth annual Martha’s Vineyard VFW fluke tournament, a twofer that measured exactly how Nelson’s engagement with his adopted Island home and its multifarious membership cut a wide swath. He made contacts, he made friends, and he nurtured every one of them unstintingly.
Over 30 years, Nelson, familiar with angling for a striped bass or stalking a white-tailed deer, learned to find, evaluate, and explain a news event, an issue, or a newsmaker. He took what the story handed him, then asked another question, and another. He hounded the evasive, spoke at patient length with the wounded and bereaved, and sympathetically with the unfairly harmed. He reported with his ears and his heart open for the missing and the telling details. He asked himself always the crucial question, “What is the readership owed in this story and this week’s edition?” He learned what newspapers and news writing should be about, first as a salesman, then as an outdoors columnist, a reporter, a news editor, a managing editor and, when I retired in 2014, the editor. It was a long trail he was born to travel.