REMEMBERING A PLANET PIONEER

Former Planet faculty adviser Michael Frome dies at 96.

Story by Jesse Nichols

Michael Frome writes on his secondhand typewriter in his office. Frome died on September 4, 2016. Photo courtesy of Michele Frome.

Two years ago, I worked my first quarter with The Planet, as a videographer. The magazine was celebrating its 35th anniversary, and my editor assigned me to chronicle its history. I sifted through piles of old issues. I spoke with students and faculty advisers spanning decades. Throughout my reporting, one name kept coming up: Michael Frome.

Frome was an environmental journalist who served as The Planet’s faculty adviser from 1988 to 1995. He was 5 feet 7 inches tall, and often sported a mustache and large sunglasses. People who knew him described him as passionate, brutally honest and unafraid to defend the things he treasured.

Frome was born in New York City in 1920. As a teenager during the Depression, he was a labor union activist with the Young Communist League in New York City. As a young man, he flew as a navigation pilot for the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. After the war, he became a member of Veterans for Peace. He started his writing career as a reporter at the Washington Post in 1945, following in the footsteps of his hero, the early 20th-century muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens.

Frome started writing about the environment as a freelancer in the early 1960s. He had traveled the national parks in the 1950s, as a public relations worker for the American Automobile Association, and saw stories he wasn’t seeing in the news. He was an environmental journalist at the forefront of the environmental movement, and he saw an opportunity for a new kind of journalism.

“He was a journalist that doesn’t fit in with modern journalistic principles,” his daughter, Michele Frome, said. “He did not believe in objectivity. He felt that a journalist should be subjective. A journalist should be fighting for and against things.”

Michael embraced opinion and point of view. He felt the environment was too precious for objectivity. His writing was well-researched, poetic and full of unapologetic activism. It even lost him jobs at times, but he took pride in his martyrdom.

“I was introduced once,” he told me in a phone call in 2015. “He said, ‘Here’s Mike Frome, he’s been fired from every job he ever had.’ And everybody cheered.”

Frome came to Huxley College at Western Washington University in 1987 to be what he described as the “environmental journalist-in- residence.” He taught environmental journalism and advised The Planet, a scrappy eight-year-old student publication at the time.

Frome had high expectations for his students. He was blunt and critical of sloppy writing. Students would often walk out of his office in shock after he critiqued their drafts, several former students told me. But beyond harsh critiques, Frome was a role model, and often stayed in touch with students as a mentor and friend long after they graduated.

Frome believed in his writing style. But more than that, he respected tenacious writing, objective or not. He resented journalism that printed claims as fact or equated truth with falsehood in the name of balance. He valued research and discovery.

The Planet today is different than it was under Frome’s leadership. We choose to strive for impartiality and fairness. But we also strive for tenacity, investigation and discovery. We try our best to not let objectivity become tepid journalism.

Frome published 12 books in his lifetime, and was always working on another. In the last two years of his life, his vision declined to the point where he couldn’t read the computer screen. He would dictate his emails, books and monthly newsletters to his daughter, Michele.

“He was constitutionally incapable of not writing,” Michele Frome said. “I can’t tell you how many times he said, ‘This will be my last book,’ and it never was.”

In his 96 years of life, Frome witnessed nearly a century of environmental change. He felt discouraged that environmental progress had slowed its pace from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. He didn’t like it. So he made a decision to focus his writing on people doing good, no matter how small their victories.

Frome underscored his outlook with a coda he’d say at the end of every conversation: “Be of good cheer, the best is yet to come.” He ended our phone call with that in 2015.

Thank you, Michael, for your service to The Planet and your lifetime of contribution to environmental journalism.

Be of good cheer.