2012-06-20 / Features

Voice Of The Community

Gazette founding members, Roger Laghezza, Judy Jackson and George L. Stamatiades. Gazette founding members, Roger Laghezza, Judy Jackson and George L. Stamatiades. ometime in the early 1980s, a weekly newspaper appeared in Astoria which was published by the Reverend Moon, who was at that time a new arrival in this country from East Asia and settling in Western Queens and Flushing.

The paper was called Queens News and was one of several published in other communities throughout New York City.

It would develop later on that Moon’s publishing goals were not the usual ones associated with small newspapers—covering local events, community issues, politics, etc.—nor the usual aims of building a small business enterprise, because the reverend was reputedly a wealthy man. Instead, the publishing venture was simply a way for the reverend to build his church in a new country.

Eventually, the reverend changed his plans, according to George L. Stamatiades, a Dutch Kills resident and funeral director who recounted that Moon purchased one of the major news services in the U.S., and moved his entire operation to the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C.

“We got wind of these developments from one of the newspaper’s reporters who was covering a Dutch Kills Civic Association meeting,” Stamatiades recalled recently. He also asked if he was interested in buying the weekly newspaper.

“A lot of discussion followed, which all boiled down to...look, if they leave, our community will be left without a voice again.”

Eventually, Stamatiades and two others from the community, Roger Laghezza, now deceased, and Judy Jackson, agreed to put up $750 apiece “to guarantee at least three issues would get published”, Stamatiades said. “Then we figured we would try to get some ads and make a little money to help keep it rolling.”

As soon as this word got around, there was a flood of volunteers from the community offering to help with writing articles or doing anything to get a paper out.

Stamatiades offered to use his home on 31st Street near 39th Avenue (and also near his David Funeral Home) as a newsroom to get the work done. Among the first people on the quickly pulled-together staff were his wife, Connie, who did the typesetting, Bill Gronwald, who was named editor, and Liz Goff, who doubled as the paper’s first ad salesperson and also news writer.

(Goff eventually continued working on the paper through two changes in ownership, and is still on staff as a police reporter and sometimes feature writer).

Picking up the story, once the staff was chosen to work on the paper, Stamatiades could be seen throughout the day, darting back and forth between the funeral home and his residence, which were barely a block apart, making sure the newspaper was running smoothly.

They decided to call the newspaper the Western Queens Gazette and the first issue published on February 1, 1982, was a 12- page rush job with hardly any advertising printed in Long Island City for $750.

Recalling these momentous events, Stamatiades remembers proudly, “We busted our backs, but we didn’t miss an issue.”

He couldn’t recall how many papers were printed, but remembered, “Rosemary Lundgren delivered the papers to banks, laundromats, candy stores—wherever. Bob Limandri wrote a movie review and a guy named Hirshorn—whose first name I forget— did mostly all of the writing.

“After that first issue it was a struggle just to break even with the ads we sold and the volunteer help, and we did get it up to a 24- page issue,” he said.

But with such a tenuous set-up putting the paper out in his living room and spilling over into the kitchen and other rooms, it was truly a recipe for disaster, and it all came together with what is burned into his memory as “the night of the 40 people”.

Stamatiades recalls, “It was raining like hell and people just came crowding in. It was the night to get an edition out and pretty soon there were, all of a sudden, 40 people squeezing onto couches, sitting on the floor writing.”

The situation was slowly getting chaotic when, “All of a sudden some guy struggled in wheeling a bike, with water dripping all over and lays it on the living room rug,” Stamatiades remembers.

This turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Stamatiades’ wife Connie, usually a friendly type with a lot of patience, finally had enough, stood up from her typewriter and bellowed, “Either we move out of here or I’m getting a divorce.”

Things settled down again after that, long enough to get the night’s work, the writing and page layouts done and set for the printer. That cleared the way for the Gazette to vacate the premises.

By now, Laghezza and Jackson, the pair that had helped Stamatiadis get the Gazette off the ground, had moved on. Several other things happened too.

Stamatiades and a well-known caterer from Astoria named Buster Celestino pooled some money and helped the paper along. After which, then-state Senator Anthony Gazzara drew up incorporation papers to establish their ownership of the paper. At the same time, the newspaper’s office was moved out of Stamatiadis’ home and into space in a nearby building which the Dutch Kills Civic Association had purchased. Finally, the late Congressmember Thomas Manton, then a councilmember, handled all the legal work connected with the purchase of the new building, (which was across the street from the funeral parlor), and the Gazette moved into the basement there.

Stamatiades paused in our interview to pay tribute and to thank some of the volunteers who had given their sweat and tears to their beloved local paper, getting it off the ground and allowing them to move on.

Among those Stamatiades remembered were: Tony Meloni, who sold ads, later founded the Italian American Federation, now called the Immigration Advocacy Service. Meloni is reportedly interested in seeking local public office for the first time.

Another volunteer was the late Leon von Holden, who delivered the Gazette, but whose full-time passion was volunteering at local senior centers.

Others in the group were: Alexandra Hirshberger, Jimmy O’Conner and Millie Peters, who wrote a recipe column.

Stamatiades also was effusive in recalling Gronwald, who continued as the editor as long as Stamatiades was the publisher, and Goff, whom we have already cited.

Needless to say, he couldn’t praise his wife, Connie, enough.

“You just can’t calculate her contribution, giving up our home, our greatest possession, to get the Gazette off the ground and keeping it running. I’m sure all our friends still remember her contribution to the paper, but it was really a contribution to making our neighborhood and community a better place.”

Once in its new home in the Dutch Kills building, the Gazette started to expand to a 24-page issue each week and was always well-received in the community, Stamatiades explained.

But the downside was that those who worked on a regular basis, either full or parttime, wanted to get paid and that got to be a real problem because the paper wasn’t generating enough income to keep up with the demand.

So the staff started to dwindle down until there was just Gronwald and Goff left, and they were getting burned out without any support, Stamatiades explained. He also felt it would be helpful to get some people with newspaper experience involved, but it all came down to lack of money. The paper itself was not generating income with only Goff as the salesperson.

So Stamatiades and Celestino decided it was time to think about selling the paper and among those that came to their attention was John Toscano, who had just retired from the Daily News after 33 years and had started a weekly paper in Queens.

Toscano was well known in Astoria and Long Island City, as well as the rest of Queens, because the county had been his beat for the News for many years and he also wrote a weekly political column covering the borough.

The writer’s knowledge of Western Queens also made him a good fit to take over the Gazette as editor-publisher, so the discussions ended with his agreement to purchase the paper. Toscano agreed to Celestino’s request for a minor share of the paper and Celestino agreed in turn that Toscano would have full control of the publishing and editing functions. This aspect of the Gazette’s new ownership is more fully covered under a third story covering the Gazette’s middle years under the Toscano-Celestino ownership elsewhere in these pages.

Stamatiades’ final word on his 16-month adventure as a newspaper publisher reflected his avid involvement in community matters in Dutch Kills and the surrounding areas.

He stated: “The truth of the matter was that, being with the civic body, we had to maintain the newspaper’s connection with the community.

“We wanted to be sure we kept the newspaper’s momentum going (in the community) and it couldn’t have worked out any better.”

Some years after his Gazette experience, Stamatiades sold his funeral home and joined the Thomas M. Quinn & Sons Funeral Home, a Dignity Funeral Provider in Long Island City as vice president. He is also a board member of the Queens Library, an organization in which he previously served as president of the board of directors.

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