SARANAC LAKE - Charlie Decker's journalism career was cut short when he died suddenly at the age of 34, but his spirit lives on in the work of hundreds of reporters, writers and other media professionals in the North Country and across the U.S.
The Charles B. Decker Memorial Scholarship Fund was created by Decker's family shortly after his death in 1991. So far, it's provided 221 scholarships totaling roughly $250,000 to graduating high school students studying journalism and to professional journalists interested in continuing their education or pursuing various projects. This year, the Decker fund is supporting this reporter's travel, lodging and meal expenses to attend and cover local athletes competing in the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The Lake Placid News/Adirondack Daily Enterprise recently caught up with some of the people who worked with Decker during his short but impressive journalism career. The newspaper also spoke this week with several of the journalism professionals who've benefitted from Decker's scholarship fund over the years, including people like Molly Erman, a 2003 graduate of Saranac Lake High School who's now working in New York City for The New Yorker magazine.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise Senior Staff Writer Chris Knight works on a story Tuesday, Jan. 21, a couple weeks before he heads to Sochi, Russia to cover the Olympic Winter Games for the Enterprise and Lake Placid News. The trip is being supported by the Charles B. Decker Memorial Scholarship Fund. (Photo — Andy Flynn)
"The Decker family has been so kind, and their early interest in my very fledgling high school journalism career really gave me a lot of confidence," Erman said.
Start in sports
Born in 1956 and raised in Saranac Lake, Charlie Decker was the youngest of four children of Dr. Alfred "Fritz" and Janet Decker. He started pursuing his journalism career at the Enterprise while he was still attending Saranac Lake High School. An outstanding athlete, he would pitch a varsity baseball game, staffers recall, then come to the paper later to write the story.
"He was very athletic and very quick for a big guy," recalled his older brother John Decker, a Saranac Lake doctor. "He was a great baseball player and an all-Northern football player. His interest in journalism fit well with the sports. He started on the sports page like a lot of guys do, and it grew from there."
After graduating, Charlie attended Cornell University and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Mo. He didn't finish either, his brother recalled.
"He was more into working and getting out there," John Decker said. "Because he didn't have a degree, I think he worked harder to keep his job, and as a result he did quite well."
Decker was also an avid fisherman, hunter and a big New York Yankees fan.
Back in Saranac Lake
In 1976, Decker started working full-time at the Enterprise. In a short time he became the paper's sports editor. During the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, Decker was editor of the Daily Olympic Digest, a special morning newspaper published during the games by the Enterprise and Lake Placid News. The Digest won a special award of excellence from the New York State Publishers Association.
Following the Olympics, Decker worked as a reporter for the Wheeling, W.Va. Intelligencer and as sports editor for the Parkersbug, W.Va. Sentinel.
In 1985, a then-28-year-old Decker returned to the North Country to become managing editor of the Enterprise. Meri-jo Borzilleri was an Enterprise reporter at the time. Originally from Lake Placid, she's now a Seattle-based freelance reporter who's also written for the Miami Herald and Colorado Springs Gazette, among other papers.
"Charlie made the newsroom fun," Borzilleri said. "He had this great, irreverent take on things, and that's what made it fun. What made him special is that he had the ability to connect with people from all different walks of life. He could just as easily talk with the local bartender as he could the governor of the state, and find common ground there."
Borzilleri described Decker as a gifted writer and editor who loved covering his hometown. He was also very fast when big news hit, she said, recalling the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.
"The Challenger blows up over Florida at like 11 in the morning, when we were putting the last touches on layout, so the paper would hit the newsstands that afternoon," she said. "The bell on the Associated Press machine went off, and I'm looking at Charlie. He springs into action, and he completely, himself, tore up the whole front page, got the story in, got a photo in, and I wouldn't be surprised if we weren't one of the first papers to get that story in that day."
Decker left the Enterprise in September 1986 to become state editor for the Watertown Daily Times. He later became the paper's assistant managing editor.
John Golden was a feature columnist for the Times when Decker arrived. He said the two became fast friends.
"We worked together, and laughed and clashed together and cursed each other," said Golden, who's currently Westchester Bureau Chief for the Westchester County Business Journal. "We had this funny relationship. Charlie once told me in a moment of pique that a monkey could sit at a keyboard and eventually peck out a story with the time I took to write my Sunday column. I'd say, 'Bring in the monkey.'"
Golden said Decker was "hugely good-hearted" and someone he could talk with during a difficult time in his life, when he was working through a painful separation and divorce. He also described Decker as a "ladies' man."
"That was one of his real charms," Golden said. "He wasn't the most handsome or perfectly built guy, but he had great eyes, a great smile and a great laugh."
"He did a marvelous job here at the Watertown Times," John B. Johnson, the paper's then-managing editor, said after Decker's death. "He was a good editor, loved the news business and was good at getting the truth."
Decker's family and friends said Charlie's unexpected death of a brain stem hemorrhage in July 1991 was a shock. John Decker said the news hit his mother particularly hard.
"The two of them were very close," he said. "He'd call her up as a reference for his stories. She was an English teacher and she'd help him. It was such a shock that I don't know what more to say about it."
"It was one of those things that kind of rocked your world, because he was so young and it was so unexpected," said Borzilleri, who also dated Decker for a time. "It just seemed like he was hitting his stride at a bigger paper. Who knows what he would have done beyond that."
"I still choke up when I think about it," Golden said. "We were just stunned, all of us that worked with him. To have a guy that young who was so full of life ..."
Decker's parents launched the scholarship fund following Charlie's death using some of his insurance money, and gifts from family and friends. Golden was one of the first people to apply for and receive an award, which have typically ranged between $500 to $2,000.
"I used the money to pay a manuscript typist for my book 'Northern Drift: Sketches on the New York Frontier,' an illustrated collection of my early columns and features at the Times," he said. "The first copy went to the Deckers. It was a great boost and a nice expression of support."
Colin Surprenant, a Decker fund recipient, former Enterprise intern and 2001 Saranac Lake High School graduate, said the support he received helped him chart a path in the communications field. Since graduating in 2005 from Marymount in Manhattan College with a communications degree, he's worked in marketing at Stuff and Maxim magazines in New York City. He's currently Maxim's director of integrated marketing, in charge of selling and branding the magazine and its website, often at major events across the country like the Sundance Film Festival, Mardis Gras in New Orleans and the Super Bowl, which he's been to six times.
"I love my job," Surprenant said. "I'm very fortunate and very appreciative to the Decker family. It was a great stepping stone to give me that positive reinforcement and encourage the direction I was going."
Erman graduated from Indiana University with a journalism degree. She worked at Vanity Fair magazine after college, then shifted into publicity at a pair of New York City book publishers before taking her current job as a senior publicist for the New Yorker last fall.
"I work in the PR office, which is the hub that oversees the social media," she said. "We're the media-facing arm of the magazine. I set up interviews and other sorts of promotion. It's an inspiring place, just being affiliated with great journalism.
"The Decker family was so supportive of me and continues to be in touch," Erman added. "The money was great, but it felt like they as a family were really invested in Charlie's legacy through the people that they honored they took an interest in."
In 2001, the Deckers turned over administration of the fund to what was then the Adirondack Community Trust, now the Adirondack Foundation.
"It is great that they were able to keep his legacy going this way," said current Enterprise Publisher Catherine Moore, who managed the paper's advertising department when Decker was its editor. "It's wonderful a reporter like you can benefit from what has been set up in his memory. It makes sense to use it to send you to Sochi, because he worked so hard during the Olympics to put out the Digest."
"It's a perfect use of the money," said John Decker. "We're delighted that you're going to go."
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.