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RIP Phil Blanchard, who founded Testy Copy Editors

August 23, 2019 By James Montalbano

Phil Blanchard, an editor who performed his trade primarily in newspapers over five decades, died on August 16, 2019, at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The cause was cancer.

Phil’s newspaper career landed him at papers including his hometown Schenectady Gazette, as well as the Albany Times Union, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Washington Post. But his commitment to editing went beyond punching a clock in a newsroom. An early adopter of internet technology, he was the longtime proprietor of Testy Copy Editors, which throughout its permutations and internet addresses, was always an online refuge for unheralded wordsmiths worldwide and a place “where newspaper copy editors and their fans talk shop.”

Phil
(from the left) James Montalbano, Mary Ellen Slayter and Phil Blanchard

Phillip James Blanchard was born in Schenectady, N.Y., on November 28, 1953, to George and Joan Blanchard. A newshound as a child, he was a frequent listener of and caller to WSNY (1240-AM) in Schenectady — later WWWD (“Three-W-D”) — and by age 13 he was hanging around the radio station, eventually granted status as a trainee, helping coordinate the internal doings at the news and Top 40 operation. In addition to serving as a news assistant, Phil would sneak his way on air, working his way up to fill-in weekend shifts spinning the pop hits of the day. Because the boss was partial to ex-presidents, he bequeathed the on-air handle “Chet Arthur” to his young upstart. This being a year of 50th anniversaries, it should be noted that Phil had a hand in the radio station’s coverage of Woodstock (surveying the scene at Max Yasgur’s farm from a helicopter) and the Apollo 11 mission (feeding updates, on the night of the landing and moonwalk, from the news ticker to the on-air anchorman).

In August 1972, he began his newspaper career at the Albany Times Union covering the suburbs and the police beat. (He had applied to be a copy boy but was hired as a reporter.) He moved on to the Times-Herald Record of Middletown, N.Y. He spent time in the late ‘70s living in Manhattan, and he did a stint with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), handling public relations and editing the union’s monthly in-house publication.

By the early 1980s he returned to upstate New York and became a fixture at the Schenectady Gazette, moving quickly from reporter to acting city editor to an assistant city editor. In a moment that would define a career devoted to the naked truth and strict journalistic ethics, Phil challenged the Gazette’s editor over the reluctance to publish a story about a mother accused of killing her children. The publisher balked at covering it. Phil disagreed, and quit.

He returned to the Albany Times Union, rebooting his career as a copy editor. “I realized that I liked it and was really good at it,” he recalled. “I liked the control. I couldn’t blame anyone else for fucking up a story if I was the editor of it. I essentially had the last say.” He rose to be copy desk chief and the evening-shift slot for the morning paper during the week and news editor on weekends (when bosses were not around to complicate story decisions).

In 1989, he moved to what would become his second, adopted home, Chicago, to work at the Sun-Times. Back on the copy desk, he would fill in as news editor and eventually reigned as the paper’s editor of the wire services, taking copy from the paper’s news services and crafting stories dispatched from all over the world. He took a rare turn as a writer – earning a byline that copy editors never received — for a feature story about cigars, one of his longtime passions. During his time at the Sun-Times, a features editor threw a party in 1992, and it was at that party that he met Catherine Ruhl, a midwife who caught Phil’s eye immediately. They spent hours together that day and evening, ending up at a coffee shop on Chicago’s North Side. They married one year later, evening coffee their staple.

In 2000, the couple moved to Bethesda, Maryland, and Phil took up residence at the Washington Post. He served mainly as a copy editor on the business copy desk. He took a buyout in 2008, and after not quite a year at a news operation in the United Arab Emirates, he settled into freelance editing for the last decade of his career. He retired this year, having five years ago established another Chicago connection, as editor of wire stories for Tribune Media Services. During his freelance days, Phil began making occasional road trips to Albuquerque, and he and Cathy moved to New Mexico in 2015.

Phil was the epitome of the autodidact. He never enrolled in college, but his bookshelves sagged under the weight of thick tomes. Sections were devoted to religious studies (he was an atheist), language treatises and biographies of Supreme Court justices, among others. He named his succession of cats after Byzantine emperors, Leo being the latest and who survives him. Phil not only served as a lifelong student in that way, but he was also a teacher. He took numerous young copy editors and college journalism students under his wing, a fiercely committed mentor. He was an original member of the American Copy Editors Society (now ACES: The Society for Editing), beginning with the group’s first national conference in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1997. He ran seminars annually at the ACES conferences, riffing off his role as the proprietor of Testy Copy Editors and rotating in a diverse group of young editors as his co-hosts.

Phil began Testy Copy Editors as a bulletin board on a CompuServe listserv in the early 1990s, before the establishment of the modern internet. TCE created a home for the uncelebrated backbench newspaper staffers who did not receive bylines or otherwise get public credit for their work editing stories and writing headlines. The site evolved as technology did. In the 1990s, the forum set up residence for several years as an AOL chat room (with entering visitors typically met by their host with the greeting: “A fan, or just slumming?”), as well as a Yahoo! group for a while. Around 2002, the site emerged as a standalone website of its own (still archived at www.testycopyeditors.org/phpBB3/index.php), gaining hundreds of members at its peak. They engaged in spirited discussions of the trade — confidently skewering journalistic tropes and toppling linguistic shibboleths — and in heartfelt defenses of the fundamental importance of the craft of copy editing. It was a virtual, white-collar version of old-school newspaper printers dashing off to the bar for a shot and a beer between editions while the printing presses idled.

Testy Copy Editors crowdsourced the coinage of the “crash blossom” (a densely written and hopelessly inscrutable headline) and caught the attention of William Safire, the curator of the On Language column in the New York Times. He noted the group’s “savage snark,” a label the members embraced. The website’s homepage featured a compendium of quotes, including that one, as well as descriptions of the bulletin board as being “like group therapy with prisoners in the Poynter Institute's dungeon”; “like porn — if you get off on Scrabble”; and “better than the Kool-Aid acid tests.” And this, directed to the founder: “You take a vocation that the simple-minded consider to be mere drudgery, and you exploit every bit of fascinating and humorous nuance imaginable.”

But Phil was not pugnacious just for the sake of being contradictory, or, to use one of his favorite phrases, being deliberately provocative. He saw part of his mission in life as standing up to the powerful — whether it was the federal government, the local school board or the editor in chief — to defend what was right, what should be done. He was sometimes bullied during his school years, and for the rest of his life he detested bullying in every form, whether it was a bureaucrat refusing to release a public record or a person in his vicinity mocking someone nearby.

Survivors include his wife of 26 years, Catherine Elizabeth Ruhl; his son, Benjamin Ruhl Blanchard; his brother David L. Blanchard (Marianne “Mae”); nieces Laura Gray (Kevin) and Janine Huber (John); and an uncle Ronald J. Blanchard (Anita). He was preceded in death by his parents, George J. and Joan D. Blanchard, and his brother George Charles Blanchard. Testy Copy Editors continues on as a Facebook page. A memorial service is planned for October 12, 2019, in Schenectady with details pending.

August 17, 2019

Albuquerque, N.M.

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