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Feisty Historian Raymond Brighton

Historian & editor Raymond A. Brighton by Peter E. Randall/ SeacoastNH.com
SEACOAST LITERARY LIONS

Look up the word "curmudgeon" in the dictionary and you should find Ray Brighton. He was as feisty as he was hardworking, first as a long time editor of the Portsmouth Herald, and then as one of the city’s most prolific writers of local history. His friend and colleague Peter Randall offers this homage to Brighton’s career.

 

 

Raymond A. Brighton
1914-1997
Newspaper editor, historian, author

In the pantheon of Portsmouth authors, no local historian is likely to match the output of Ray Brighton. Born in Boston on August 6, 1914, he grew up in Peterborough, New Hampshire, attended Antioch College, and graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in education. Ray taught briefly at the New Hampshire State Industrial School, and then served in the U. S. Army during World War II. He joined the Portsmouth Herald in 1946. During the next 33 years he moved up the ranks from reporter to managing editor and then served 10 years as editor before retiring in 1979.

When the Herald was located on Congress Street, Ray walked daily to Teddy’s Lunch (now Breaking New Grounds) for mid-morning coffee break. Whether sitting at the lunch counter or walking back and forth, Ray often picked up odds and ends of local politics, tidbits that sometimes formed the basis for one of his angry editorials. Ever a cynic, Ray once remarked that if no one complained about his editorials, they weren’t good enough. In one of his last published pieces, after retirement, he grumped in a letter to the Herald editor that the old Wentworth by the Sea Hotel was not worth saving and should be torn down. (Methinks he would have dined contentedly in the renovated hotel today.)

Although often gruff and uncompromising when it came to discussing and writing about local affairs, Ray was a loyal friend to many, always ready to share his historical knowledge with other writers.

He wrote quickly and prolifically. Once he was sent on a several-day press trip to Israel, returning late one afternoon. The next day the Herald began publishing a series of articles about the trip. When did he write the articles, I asked? While most people slept on the flight home, Ray had banged out his stories on the airplane, using his portable typewriter.

Along with his other Herald duties, Ray began to write a newspaper history column, often doing research in the Portsmouth Athenaeum where he became a long-time proprietor, board member, and president. As part of Portsmouth’s 350th anniversary celebration in 1973, he wrote his epic They Came To Fish, a two-volume history of the city. Although he never considered it definitive, the book remains the most complete story of Portsmouth’s past. It has been reprinted twice, and is out of print again.

Next Brighton tackled Portsmouth’s most controversial figure, alemaker and tycoon Frank Jones. Published in 1974, the Jones biography was the first original book from publisher Peter E. Randall. Retirement freed up all of Ray Brighton’s considerable energy for research and writing history. By a happy coincidence, the newly established Portsmouth Marine Society created an outlet for Ray’s voluminous work. He next dug into the origin of Portsmouth’s Prescott Park. The book unearthed the dramatic story of two elderly sisters who used millions of inherited dollars to reshape the Portsmouth waterfront. The Prescott Story was the second volume in the Portsmouth Marine Society series. Ray followed it with the only biography ever written about Portsmouth native Tobias Lear, George Washington’s private secretary.

His next three books for the Portsmouth Marine Society recorded the history of the merchant shipbuilding industry in the Piscataqua region during the age of sail. First was Clippers of the Port of Portsmouth and the Men Who Built Them, followed by Port of Portsmouth Ships and the Cotton Trade, 1789-1829, and Tall Ships of the Piscataqua, 1830-1877.

His last volume continued the tradition of Charles W. Brewster, a 19th century Portsmouth newspaper editor whose output over 50 years comes in second only to Ray’s work, For Rambles About Portsmouth, Ray collected historical sketches of local people and places from his popular newspaper column begun in 1988. Ray spent untold hours scanning back issues of Portsmouth newspapers on microfilm. Had he realized how many books he was going to write, Ray said later in his life, he would have gone through all the newspapers just once—and taken better notes. He also wrote an unpublished history about his other avocation, the Portsmouth Country Club, where he could be found golfing when not at the Herald or at a library.

For a few years, Ray was a part owner of the Herald, a share he and other long-time employees received from the estate of the paper’s publisher, J. D. Hartford. Ray served as president of the New England Associated Press Executives Association, was a board member of the New England Society of Newspaper Editors, and received the Golden Quill award from the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Ray’s first wife, Jacquelyn, died in 1989. She was the mother of his two children, Mark and Prudence. Prudy followed her father into the newspaper business. Ray later married Bette Nelson, a family friend who had worked with Ray at the Herald for many years. After a period of ill health, Brighton died in 1997.

Peter E. Randall is a popular NH photographer, writer, editor and publisher of over 300 books. Visit his web site for books by Ray Brighton. 

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