My legislative colleague Howard Pearl once hosted a cookout for fellow solons at his farm on Loudon Ridge. A state representative from Nashua took in the view on that fine day and exclaimed: “It sure is beautiful up here in the North Country.”
I quickly corrected him and told him that Loudon is not in the North Country.
“New Hampshire’s true North Country is north of the notches,” I explained.
“North of the Notches” is an expressional popularized by editor, publisher, writer, outdoorsman, and self-proclaimed hooligan John Harrigan of Colebrook—a town which is indeed north of the notches.
Around 1978 Harrigan purchased the Coos County Democrat, a weekly paper published in Lancaster. Shortly thereafter a new college grad about to begin a teaching career at Groveton High School approached John and inquired about writing a weekly sports column. That person was me. We had a nice discussion and Harrigan offered me $5 a week for a sports column and another $5 if I’d come in on Monday nights and put together a high school sports roundup.
Five dollars was a lot of money in those days, and I happily accepted the offer. The sports column was entitled “Up and Down the River,” as in Connecticut River and as in the North Country communities that bordered on it from Whitefield to Lancaster to Groveton to Stratford to Colebrook to Pittsburg. The column touched on both local and national sports stuff. This “Sport-Thoughts” column you’re reading is a descendant of “Up and Down the River.”
A true newspaperman, Harrigan knew the value of a sports section and he’d sometimes show up at games to get action photos for the Democrat. But John was more of an outdoorsman than a ball and stick guy and his “Woods, Water, and Wildlife” column ran for many years in the N.H. Sunday News.
John not only drafted me to write weekly sports roundups but he also drafted me to run on his relay team which competed every autumn during the Dixville Notch Half Marathon and Relay Races. The relay involved four three-mile legs from Dixville to Colebrook. John always ran the final leg into town and the finish line so he could wave to everyone—because everyone knew him.
Harrigan was close to the scene on that terrible day in Colebrook, August 19, 1997, when an angry gunman named Carl Drega murdered State Troopers Les Lord and Scott Phillips as well as Colebrook News and Sentinel editor Dennis Joos and attorney Vickie Bunnell—all friends of John. Drega later wounded other uniformed pursuers before he was shot and killed across the river in Vermont.
“I still replay the whole thing every now and then in my mind and just wonder why I was not killed as well,” recalled Harrigan. “I was supposed to be at the newspaper office in the afternoon and then go fishing with Vickie’s dad.”
Despite the carnage, Harrigan still helped put out the weekly paper the next day, with fresh tragic headlines. His efforts would earn him a Pulitzer Prize nomination in the “Breaking News” category.
Though I’ve been mostly “south of the notches” for several decades, John and I stayed in touch occasionally. I was at an airport terminal somewhere a couple years ago when he called me out of the blue just to say hello. That outreach meant much to me, and I resolved to similarly reach out to an old friend someday as well. Out of the blue. Generous gestures beget more generous gestures.
Mostly retired from the newspaper business, Harrigan still wrote a syndicated folksy weekly outdoors column that was always interesting and informative. And sometimes funny! It appeared in the Coos County Democrat, of course, and my mom always saved copies for me.
I noticed this past fall that the paper was re-running old Harrigan columns instead of fresh new material and I was a bit surprised. If anyone understood deadlines, it was a newspaperman. But last month the reason for the old columns became clear when the Union Leader ran a front-page notice of John’s passing. Apparently, an aggressive cancer was identified in November and the hooligan newspaperman and North Country icon succumbed and “shuffled off this mortal coil” in December.
Any life well-lived leaves lasting memories and special energy which immortalizes that life, in a sense. One can be sure that there are old-fashioned scrapbooks all over New Hampshire that feature yellowed newspaper stories and columns authored by John Harrigan, and that John’s spirit lives on in such scrapbooks, and elsewhere as well.
Especially “north of the notches.”