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One of Shore Publishing’s longest-serving reporters, Becky Coffey has retired after more than 16 years covering Westbrook and Old Saybrook for The Source’s sister paper the Harbor News. Her curiosity, intellect, and understanding shaped the way all seven Shore Publishing newspapers approach local reporting. We wish her the best. (Photo by Zoe Roos/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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Becky Coffey is known for many talents. At her church, she’s appreciated as a talented cantor and choir member. In town government circles, she’s remembered for her years of service on the Board of Education and High School Building Committee. Here at Shore Publishing, she’s legendary for her knack for tackling deeply complex government processes and programs.
Last month, after 16 years as the beat reporter for Old Saybrook and Westbrook in The Source’s sister paper the Harbor News, Becky set down the notepad and pen. As she looks to retirement after 16 years of watching the ups and downs of both local government and local journalism, she still sees a bright future for both.
Becky’s interest in politics and the workings of government really took hold after an experience she had as an 8th grader. Her maternal grandfather D. Worth Clark was a U.S. senator from Idaho. Her mother grew up in Washington D.C. in the 1930s and Becky says one of her earliest vivid memories is from 1967. She, her sister, and her parents took a family trip to Washington D.C. and visited the U.S. Senate, where, because of her mother’s connections, Becky watched the censure hearings of U.S. Senator Thomas Dodd from the family gallery above the senate floor.
“What was so different then was the seriousness, the eloquence, the deliberative discussion, and the bipartisanship,” she says. “Here I was sitting there in the gallery watching almost what seemed like scholars—that was the impression. You got a very different impression from the way it is now.
“They spoke with a high level of language and eloquence and oratory that just doesn’t seem to exist now,” she continues. “That is where I think I got my first real serious interest in government and how it works and the processes.”
That interest continued. After graduating from college Becky went on to get a job a the U.S. Senate as a typist and then as a clerk before she decided to pursue a master’s degree in urban and regional planning at George Washington University. She interned with the Senate Committee on Public Lands and ended up working for the federal government for a while until she met her husband, Peter, and moved back to her native California.
“I started applying my planning degree in private settings so I worked for [Pacific Gas & Electric] doing permitting and land use and then when Pete got a new job in Cleveland, I did it there, too,” she says. “When we finally moved here, I ended up at an engineering company.
Becky and Peter landed in Madison in 1997 and have two children, Erin and Tess. Becky says for almost her entire career she ended up working part-time because of her desire to spend time with her children.
“The things is you have to make a choice when both members of a couple travel and you have kids,” she says. “Either you have to get a nanny or you have to figure out if one of you is going to work part-time and I made a choice to work part-time because I would prefer that. That way I could continue to be involved in my children’s lives and do volunteer work.”
Becky served on the Madison Board of Education for 10 years, including two years as the board chair. As a member of the High School Building Committee, her role in its planning committee led her into journalism.
The Harbor News
Becky recalls the planning committee for the high school as “contentious to say the least,” but she took on the role of communications for the committee.
“I wasn’t serving specifically, but I was part of the big process that they had organized to try and come up with some sort of solution, so what I agreed to do was go to the weekly meetings, write them up, and send them to the paper,” she says. “So I wrote articles for probably six months or so and I would send them in once a week.”
Those free articles for The Source produced a part-time job offer at Shore Publishing. While she had no formal training as a journalist, Becky said her interest in government and her desire to help break down complex topics into comprehensible chunks made the job of community reporter for Old Saybrook and Westbrook the perfect fit.
“The role of a community journalist is to try the best that we can to help members of the public understand the facts and to simplify those issues, which are very complex,” she says. “In our case, local government is run...by the residents, the votes of the residents. Our readers are the voters, and they have to decide the tax themselves and they need to have good information if they’re going to make that decision at the voting booth. Whether it is about budgets or capital projects or bonding questions, they need to know the facts, because they’re the ones pulling the lever.”
Spending so many years covering small towns like Westbrook and Old Saybrook has been a privilege, according to Becky. Looking back, Becky says it’s the people she will miss and the contacts that she made.
“Over all these many years I have profiled so many people in the community through the Person of the Week and I never have run out of interesting people,” she says. “I think there is something interesting about every person and there has never been an interview where I haven’t found something interesting about them that I want to share with others.”
Unsurprisingly, her own stories provide interesting fodder as well. Becky grew up on the west coast and refers to herself as a third-generation Berkeley Californian.
Growing up in Berkeley in the late ‘60s was an education all of its own. Becky remembers the city bus she had to take to get to her high school would often be diverted because of tear gas. Then there was the incident at Peoples Park in 1969 that became known as “Bloody Thursday” when the park became the scene of one of the most violent conflicts between Berkeley University students and police.
“Peoples Park was a place to watch,” she said. “Someone was killed and then California Governor Ronald Reagan sent the tanks into Berkeley to quell the disruption. There were tanks on the city streets after Peoples Park. So it was a time to live in Berkeley.”
Both of her grandparents went to University of California Berkeley, back in the days when the Bay Area still had a lot of open space, a far cry from what one might see today.
“My grandfather worked in San Francisco and he went there by ferry,” she says. “There was no San Francisco Bay Bridge. My father was a boy scout and one of the things his boy scout troop did is...a field trip while the bridge was under construction. You just walked up on the superstructure.”
While her time at Shore Publishing has now come to an end, freeing her of a schedule dictated by deadlines, retirement will still be a busy time for Becky. Both she and her husband are now retired and Becky said their daughters came up with a fun way for the two of them to think about retirement: plan for it.
“They gave us a bunch of these blank forms and from Christmas until our anniversary in September, we were each, once a month, supposed to put one card in our slot and one in the middle one which was for both of us,” she says. “The goal was to identify a milestone, a travel trip, or a skill that we wanted to master in retirement and to try and identify which things we would do together and which thing we envision doing separately.”
The result is she and her husband now have a trip planned; Becky is in Con Brio, the auditioned shoreline choir; and she is still thinking about writing, just in another form. She plans to sort through all of the family genealogical information and consolidate it so it can be passed on to future generations.
“I want to try and get some of those stories and collect them and compile them in some fashion so I can pass those stories on to my girls because a lot of what we do in writing is collect and tell stories,” she says. “Genealogy is the same and those stories will be lost if someone doesn’t bring them to life and pass them on. I’d like to be part of that.”
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