Richard “Dick” J. Lutz, editor and publisher of The Main Street WIRE from 1996 to 2016, died Sunday of a heart attack in Sarasota, Florida, while visiting college friend Irwin Starr. He was 79 years old.
Lutz was born on November 19, 1938, in Dunkirk, New York. Showing an early talent for writing and public speaking, he was encouraged by his father to become a proficient typist, learning to pound out a stunning 90 words per minute and building on a combination of skills that would ultimately set the course of his life.
Friends and colleagues describe Lutz as someone with a passion for new technology. According to friend Irwin Starr, that was true even in college at the University of Michigan. Starr says Lutz was the first person in the city of Ann Arbor to purchase an IBM Selectric typewriter, owning one even before the University.
Lutz graduated from Michigan in 1960 with a bachelor’s in speech, and then again in 1962 with a master’s in Radio and Television. He was Journalist in Residence at the University of Michigan from 1978-1979.
In 1963, while a teaching fellow in Michigan’s speech department, he also served as the assistant area coordinator for the Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction, a precursor to satellite television, which broadcasted educational programs throughout the Midwest via airplanes. He worked as a broadcaster at the school’s radio station, WUOM. The station was the first in the US to pick up and rebroadcast the voice of Soviet Major Gherman S. Titov from Radio Moscow during his lap around the Earth – a frequency that Lutz is credited with picking up and broadcasting out.
It was also at the University of Michigan in 1960 that Lutz met girlfriend Margaret Fondren, known as Marnie, with whom he would reconnect nearly 50 years later.
“I was always dumbfounded that he could create a script or a short story in a couple of hours,” says Fondren. “It seemed as though his creativity would flow through a conduit from his thoughts to his fingers, nonstop.”
Lutz with girlfriend Marnie Fondren in 1960.
She says the two had been out of touch for 47 years when, in 2008, she discovered he had published the historical novel Jadwiga’s Crossing, based on his family’s history as part of the great Polish migration to the US. They began corresponding, eventually picking up where they’d left off decades earlier. Lutz had planned to move to Michigan at the end of the month to be with Fondren. He was also in the process of trying to publish a sequel, Jadwiga’s America, for which he was choosing cover art.
“As a pilot, pianist, publisher, and photographer he was an example of a truly multidimensional person... an example of what can be accomplished by a purpose-driven life,” she says.
After college, Lutz worked at multiple radio and television stations. Foreseeing the coming impact public television would have, Lutz started his television career at a public television station in Hershey, PA, in 1963 – years before Congress would pass the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, expanding the development of non-commercial broadcasting. His time there was followed by ten more years at stations in Madison, WI and Pittsburgh, PA in a variety of roles. He was honored with a Corporation for Public Broadcasting Local Programming Award in 1975.
Lutz at his first television job as a summer intern in 1958 at WICU-TV in Erie, Pennsylvania
Years later, a new technology would catch his attention: the development of communication via the internet. Long before web browsers – or even the web – existed, he started work as an advisor to British Telecom and the BBC in their attempt to introduce an early version of the internet to the US market. That work ultimately brought him to Roosevelt Island in 1981.
Once in New York, Lutz eventually struck out on his own, becoming a consultant.
“When I first met him around 1990, he was selling and setting up computers for first-time users and teaching them to use software like WordPerfect,” recalls longtime friend Peggy Brooks. “I was an impatient learner and often made a wrong move before he had a chance to explain something. He never lost patience, but just calmly said, ‘No, well, this is what comes next.’”
Meanwhile, The WIRE was at a crisis point. The paper’s founder, Dr. Jack Resnick, had passed the paper on to Rivercross resident Jim Bowser. But Bowser had suffered a stroke and could no longer edit the paper.
“I dragged Dick into the frey,” says Joyce Short. “When we met, he’d lived here in the community for a while, but hadn’t been involved in Island affairs.” At the time, she was chairing the 1996 RIRA election committee. “I knew that without a newspaper, residents would have no information on which to base their votes.”
Lutz, who admitted to not knowing the difference between RIOC and RIRA for the first few years of his Island residency, may well have been describing himself in a 2013 editorial he wrote, which read, “If Roosevelt Island is just a short-term stopover for you – a place where you keep your stuff, and sleep – you may have little reason for community involvement. But a stopover can somehow become home, the place where you lodge not just your stuff but also a piece of your soul. Hardly noticing that it’s happening, you become a stakeholder. You grow reasons for involvement.”
Suddenly Lutz was once again reporting and editing the news. “The two of us functioned together as associate editors,” says Short. “After a few months, once the paper was re-established, I left for other pursuits. He wrote an editorial expressing his acknowledgement for my efforts that literally brought tears to my eyes.”
Islander Sharon Bermon, who helped copy edit the paper, also remembers those early days at The WIRE. “Joyce, Dick, and I hand delivered the paper in the beginning. I have vague memories of running through the endless hallways of Eastwood [now known as Roosevelt Landings], tossing papers in front of each door.”
Lutz also reached out to the rest of the Island community to recruit support for the paper. Islander David Bauer was one of those who answered the call.
“I first became aware of Dick Lutz when I returned from a two year assignment in Lviv, Ukraine. In Lviv, I had become painfully aware of the important role of a reliable publication to keep negative aspects of the local community under control. Dick had called a meeting for volunteers to renew The WIRE. He welcomed me to help; at the start I was delivering the edition to Rivercross and occasionally other buildings when needed.”
No one was more grateful to Lutz for this work than WIRE founder, Resnick. “Dick truly rescued and professionalized The WIRE,” Resnick says. Longtime friends Matthew Katz and Sherie Helstein agree. They both remember the paper before Lutz took over. “When we moved to the Island in 1989, sometimes an article in the paper would jump to an empty page,” recalls Katz. “Another time the front page was printed in Greek.”
Lutz at a 2016 party thanking WIRE volunteers for their service in stuffing and delivering papers.
At the helm, Lutz strove to ensure that The WIRE would be a voice for residents. “Dick was always determined to provide the paper free of charge to the community,” says Short. “He always understood the responsibility of journalism to research and vet information, and refrain from defamation. No matter how he viewed an issue, he always made room for people to voice opposing opinions. As an editor, a gentleman, and a friend to many, he will be sorely missed.”
Others recall what a hard worker he was. “For years Dick was a constant presence at any meeting of consequence on the island,” says Roosevelt Island Historical Society President Judy Berdy “How many hours did he spend silently typing away at RIRA, RIOC, and dozens of other meetings? Thousands!” she said.
Close friend Linda Heimer recalls a Paris trip with Lutz during the first years of his involvement in The WIRE. She said the first thing he’d do every morning was go to an internet cafe to check his email. He had let her know that if then-editor Jim Bowser died while they were in Paris, he’d come home immediately to put out a special edition of The WIRE.
Through his role at the paper, Lutz helped shape and foster Island dialog and politics for decades.
Katz, who served four terms as RIRA president, says he and Helstein first met Lutz, not in the context of RIRA, but in the context of the Maple Tree Group, a group of Islanders frustrated by the lack of power residents had over Island operations.
According to Katz, at the time, “[The RIOC] board didn’t have a single person living on the Island making decisions.” Katz says that then-Governor Eliot Spitzer came to him, via RIOC President Steve Shane, and asked him to create elections for RIOC Board members.
“Dick made sure to publicize and clarify the first election effort,” says Helstein. “More people came out to vote in that election than they did that year for governor.”
Vicki Feinmel also met Lutz through the Maple Tree Group. “Every Sunday we would have brunch at Trellis by the window at the big, round table,” recalls Feinmel. “All we talked about was Island stuff: what we couldn’t stand, what we wanted to change, how we could change it. That became my life.”
At the time, Feinmel says, Lutz’s mother was alive and living with him. “His mother had Alzheimer’s. He would bring her to our Sunday brunches the whole time she was living here. He would hold her hand taking her everywhere. He took such care of her. Eventually it became so difficult, he had her in Goldwater Hospital so he could visit. He was so kind to people.”
Feinmel says that while Lutz didn’t join Island groups, he worked hard to support the causes he believed in, including the efforts of the Maple Tree Group. “He kept a journalistic distance,” she recalls. “He tried to be political without putting the paper in jeopardy. He could never join the organizations here, but he supported them.”
“There were so many demonstrations throughout the years that no one would have known about if not through The WIRE,” says Heimer.
And because of Lutz’s work on The WIRE, they got results. He was responsible for publicizing former RIOC President Jerry Blue’s plan to get rid of the Tram, and he worked to get resident representation on the RIOC board. Heimer said that all of the protests and marches, including throwing tea into the river, were advertised in The WIRE.
Yet, Heimer says, “regardless of the small or big accomplishments that did or didn’t happen, the most important thing is that he kept The WIRE going over 20 years. He laid the foundation for what now exists that he and we think is so important to a community.”
But his community-mindedness wasn’t limited to just the paper.
“He was always so supportive of people who were trying to do something for the Island,” Feinmel says. “When I was head of the RIRA Social Cultural & Educational Committee, our first big fundraiser was at the Manhattan Park Theatre Club. Dick drove me around to pick up the supplies. We ended up raising almost $5,000. That night Dick stopped me, and whispered in my ear, ‘Vicki, look what you did; look what you accomplished.’”
In Bauer’s view, though, Lutz’s most important community contribution may have been his effort to involve the community in the paper, gathering 30 plus people in the Rivercross community room to stuff each issue, and then disperse to different buildings to deliver it. “The human relations connection that he forged was significant. People who would have normally been sitting around now had something they could look forward to every two weeks, get together and do something important.”
When Lutz was contemplating retirement, and it was made clear by the Rivercross board of directors that his successor would not have access to the community room, he knew such a change would have an impact on that sense of community. It likely contributed, along with other things, to him staying involved longer than he’d intended. He wrote at the time, “That’s part of the downside of change – the number of stakeholders drops, it becomes less of a community organization and more of a profit-making enterprise, and just another example of Roosevelt Island changing from a ‘we’re all in it together’ community into one with sensible, practical, commercial organization.”
Lutz will be remembered by his large group of friends, who are his family, on Roosevelt Island and across the country, all of the young journalists he mentored, his girlfriend Marnie Fondren, and the Roosevelt Island community at large.
A celebration of the life of Dick Lutz will be held on the Island later this Spring. Details to follow.