John Stark, a Bellingham Herald reporter for more than 20 years, plans to retire Friday, June 13.
"John brought as much passion to his writing as to his reporting," said Julie Shirley, executive editor. "His craft, and his compassion for people, is what I remember."
Born in New Jersey, Stark spent his middle and high school years in a small town in the heart of Indiana. His father was an electrical engineer, but Stark's interests lay elsewhere.
"I was always a bookworm, an avid reader," he said. "I was competent in reading and writing."
Stark earned a bachelor's degree studying English at Yale University. He thought about becoming an English professor but decided to pursue life outside of academia.
"I wanted to push myself out into the world," he said. "I didn't want to live a sheltered life."
Stark next graduated with a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, near Chicago. After working for a small Indiana newspaper for a year, he joined the much-larger El Paso Times, covering news in the border city and in nearby Juárez, Mexico.
While there, he covered one of the most fascinating stories in his career. An Army soldier based in El Paso had become a double-agent, pretending to provide military secrets to Russian spies but actually learning who the spies were while giving them innocuous information.
When the soldier was found dead in a Maryland motel room, his wife and daughter questioned official reports that he had committed suicide by electrocution. Details about the soldier's death investigation, including whether he had become a "triple agent" helping the Russians, were kept under wraps in the name of national security. Stark wrote a seven-part series about the case.
"It just popped people's eyes," he said.
Stark joined the Herald in 1981. He left the paper in 1989 to become an independent writer and to teach at Whatcom Community College, then returned in 2000. At the Herald he initially reported on commercial fishing and the Port of Bellingham, and later broadened his coverage to such areas as the waterfront, economic development, legal issues, Indian tribes and local government.
"When I arrived in Bellingham, I knew John's reputation as a tenacious and smart reporter," said Shirley, who came to the Herald in 2003. "One day he was helping out with breaking news. A child had died, wandering away from home and into the Nooksack. He broke my heart for the family and brought me to tears with his writing."
Stark gained a reputation at the Herald and in the community for his coverage of complex stories, notably his 2002 stories about county residents burdened with misleading, high-priced mortgages from subsidiaries of Household International.
Stark's stories were mentioned in bestselling author Michael Lewis' book "The Big Short" as early examples of newspaper revelations about unscrupulous mortgage lenders.
"The story started getting national attention," Stark said. "It was a harbinger of what was wrong in that industry."
For now, Stark, 64, plans to enjoy free time with his family. His hobbies include bird-watching, jazz, travel, baseball and, of course, reading.
Looking back, he has no buyer's remorse about becoming a journalist.
"It turns out to be fun," he said. "You're always learning. You're meeting all kinds of people."
Members of the public can visit with retiring Herald reporter John Stark starting at 5 p.m. Thursday, June 12, at Old World Deli, 1228 N. State St.
APPRECIATING JOHN STARK
Here's what some community members have to say about retiring Bellingham Herald reporter John Stark.
From Mark Asmundson, former Bellingham mayor and current executive director of the Northwest Clean Air Agency:
He is very smart.
He is an excellent writer.
He goes for the "real" story, not the easy story.
He has profound integrity.
He is a good father.
He loves jazz and knows more about it than nearly anyone else I have met.
From Carolyn Casey, former Herald reporter and former external affairs director for the Port of Bellingham:
I have been lucky enough to experience John Stark's professionalism from both sides of the newspaper. When I first joined The Bellingham Herald as an intern and then as a reporter, John Stark served as the assistant city editor. Although his attention to detail and determination to push reporters to get the full story was intimidating, Stark's commitment to journalism made a lifelong impression on me. He taught me to ask the tough questions and write a fair and balanced story.
Later, when I became a source, through my job as the Port of Bellingham's external affairs director, Stark demonstrated again and again his commitment to researching and reporting on topics in a thorough way. Few reporters have the capacity to sift through complex, data-driven topics and then generate a plain-language news story the way that Stark has done throughout his career. He also avoids the cheap shot, the quote out of context or the focus on the one strange statement in an otherwise normal meeting.
And you can't talk about John Stark without noting his passion for jazz music, the more obscure the better, and his wickedly dry sense of humor that allows him to see the absurdity all around him. His byline will be missed.
From Darrell Hillaire, member, Lummi Indian Business Council:
I wish the best for John in his retirement. The best being the more time John gets to spend with his children. Our time with John Stark at times included misunderstanding, understanding, criticism and support of Lummi views and views of others as relates to Lummi issues. And, over time, respect was learned for professional journalism and respect was earned through reflections on family and our visions of hope for all people. I hope John goes into retirement knowing we gained much by being part of his journey.
From Jack Keith, former managing editor at The Bellingham Herald, now a journalism instructor at Western Washington University:
Stark was always the rock of the newsroom reporting staff. From his earliest days at the Herald, it was clear he was the consummate professional journalist. He let different viewpoints have their say, and remained neutral in his reporting voice. And his writing was clear and focused. You never had to read his stories twice to understand the news.
I always thought we were lucky to have someone like that at a small daily newspaper.
From Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, her comments to the City Council on Monday, June 9:
John is an "old school" reporter that treated the City fairly. One thing the Mayor always appreciated from having worked with John for over 20 years as an elected official is that she never knew what John's opinion was when she read his articles. She will miss him, and his coverage of City and regional issues.
Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-229 or firstname.lastname@example.org .