Veteran reporter Mal Leary stands in front of the State House in Augusta where he covered Maine politics for 45 years on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Dan Warren worked with Mal Leary as part of the State House press corps as a reporter for The Associated Press. He went on to a 40-year career as a lawyer and freelance journalist.

Mal Leary has died. You might not know him — but you benefited from his work.

Leary was a journalist. The “dean of the State House press corps,” we called him.

He was relentless with Augusta politicians and bureaucrats — in a nice, positive way. He covered State House governmental and political matters every day — for radio, newspapers, and TV stations.

He covered seven governors, numerous U.S. senators, U.S. representatives, and at least 25 different Maine Legislatures.

Mal Leary mattered.

You may have heard him over the past few decades on Maine Public Broadcasting (MPBN), and National Public Radio (NPR).

I met Leary in 1973. I was a Scarborough High School student. My history teacher and baseball coach, Packy McFarland, had a college roommate from his Bowdoin days, James Longley, who was going to run for governor as an independent in 1974. We were taking a high school civics field trip to the State House to meet Longley at a legislative hearing. (A state study committee in “cutting waste” in government).

Leary was covering the hearing. Afterward, we all got to meet Longley, who then introduced us to Leary. “This guy’s a reporter,” Longley said. “He’s tough!” True.

I met Leary again in December 1979. I’d just graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in journalism. I got hired by The Associated Press (AP) to work at the State House.

The State House “press corps” was located on the 4th floor of the State House —- in a really really large closet with compartments hosting AP; UPI; Davis Rawson of the Bangor Daily News; Nancy Perry of the Portland Press Herald; Mal Leary; and occasionally reporters from the Lewiston and Biddeford newspapers.

The AP was similar to Leary. We were both everywhere, at all events. We did not do deep 10,000-word features. We did short quick 500, or maybe 2,500-word stories.

I was young, green and stupid. And, worse, I didn’t know it.

Leary did. He took me under his wing.

 Here are 10 things Mal Leary taught me (or tried to):

Rule 1: Don’t take your interview subjects at their word. They all have the incentive to exaggerate and obfuscate. Words of wisdom from Chairman Mal — and multi-syllable!

Rule 2: See Rule 1.

Rule 3: It’s not about you. It’s about your readers, listeners and viewers — and what they want to know. Go easy at press conferences on the “I, me, my.”

Rule 4: If at first you don’t succeed, be a pest. If someone doesn’t answer a question, ask it again — and again and again. Don’t be a cream puff.

Rule 5: Always be a fair person. Maine is one small town. Write good stories. Remember, you will probably run into your story subject, in the cafeteria, or laundromat, or store. And no pigpiles either.

Rule 6: Don’t guess. Ever. Show me a factual mistake, and I’ll show you a reporter who was too lazy to double check something. Is it Gov. Joseph T. Brennan.? Is it Cincinnatti? Is a gallon 16 ounces? Nope, nope, and nope. Don’t guess.

Rule 7: Do not make stuff up. You go to the Meddybemps Board of Selectmen meeting and forget to get citizen quotes on the ordinance passed requiring dogs to wear pants in public, follow up. Go back. Interview citizens. Don’t fabricate. That is not why you went into journalism. (Leary could be harsh on his fellow reporters).

Rule 8: There’s nothing wrong with short and sweet. Don’t feel the need to always write a 3,000-word story. “Who, what, when, and where” is still good. And, a corollary: A 750-word story is a 3,000-word story with a good copy editor.

Rule 9: You can’t be friends with your subject. The governor will ask you to come over to the Blaine House to shoot pool. Don’t. Only go in groups. Hard to cover people seriously when they are your drinking buddies.

Rule 10: Make us all proud. Don’t be average. If you get handouts, read them. If it’s gobbledygook, research it. Make some phone calls. Find out. Educate yourself. Let people know you are smart.

If Mal Leary was the most conscientious reporter in the room, Dave Rawson of the BDN was the funniest. I was headed to law school in 1980 and on my last day with AP I asked Rawson if he had any advice.

“Be yourself,” he said. “Unless you can be Mal Leary, in which case, be Mal Leary.”

Good advice to young journalists.

R. I. P., Mal.