It's the end of an era for the Western New York Catholic. After 32 years of headlines and deadlines, managing editor Rick Franusiak will retire.
"It's time. I'm retirement eligible," he said succinctly, shortly after putting the May issue of the diocesan newspaper to bed. His last official day will be July 1.
As a parting interview, he took a trip down memory lane recalling the people, places and stories that he encountered over those three decades.
Other than playing pro baseball, Franusiak has only wanted to write for a newspaper. He's not sure when or why the idea came to him. After thinking a moment, he recalled taking a tour of The Buffalo News as a youngster. That may have planted some seeds.
"A bug got me somehow," he said. "I always wanted to write and work for a newspaper, not television, not a newscaster. I wanted to write, I wanted to work for a newspaper, and I was able to do both those things for the majority of my life. It's a wonderful thing. It helps you when you are able to do something that you like doing. It's a good thing for mental state and health."
The North Tonawanda resident joined the staff of the Western New York Catholic in August 1984. He had been working with the Bee Group since graduating from Buffalo State College, when WNYC managing editor Patrick Brennan left for a position with the Knights of Columbus' Columbia magazine, causing a shift in staff at the WNYC. Franusiak's original duties included reporting, photography and coordinating the Youth Pages.
"My faith was important to me back then, it still is," he said. "I knew Mary Borelli (associate editor at the time), who I'm sure recommended me. It was a move I never regretted."
At the time, Msgr. David M. Lee directed the Office of Communications and served as editor-in-chief of the diocesan paper. Sister Fran Gangloff, OSF, was managing editor.
They led the story meetings and gave direction to the paper.
"Father Dave Lee, I think we hit it off from my first interview," Franusiak said. "We seemed to be on the same wavelength. He was just wonderful. What a great leader. He really taught me the spiritual side of what the Western New York Catholic was trying to do. He really showed service, the spirituality of what the Western New York Catholic should be, the kind of stories we should be writing about and bringing to people, and really building faith. I learned from the best when I learned from him."
"He's a wonderful, wonderful guy," Msgr. Lee said when he heard about Franusiak's retirement plans. "I found him to be a person of deep faith and a great love of the Church. He was also very, very kind. It was a joy to work with him. He was always very respectful. And he was a consummate professional journalist. He worked very hard to get the story. He had good ideas and suggestions."
Sister Fran created organizational flow for the WNYC that still runs in much the same fashion today.
"Her great gift was organization. I learned that from her in a strong way. She had a great gift of organizing. Her organization is how the Western New York Catholic continued to be run," Franusiak said.
To be in the newspaper industry in the 1980s was to be in a different world than today. The current staff probably couldn't conceive of stories being tapped out on typewriters, then hand cut and pasted onto printer sheets, manually taken to the printer, Tonawanda News at the time, to edit the proofs as they rolled off the printer. Photos had to be processed in a completely different facility.
"We would literally have to cut and paste at the time," Franusiak recalled. "We would type a story. They would print it out. Put it on a sheet. If it was too long, we would have to edit it. We'd have to send it back. It was quite an ordeal. On print day we would go over there, probably four of us - Father Dave, Sister Fran, Henry (Falkowski), the ad guy, and myself - we'd go down and kind of supervise; watch to make sure they would get everything right. We didn't know it was frustrating until later on."
Once computers came in with design and photo programs, the layout could be completed inhouse. Today, PDFs of the pages are sent through the Internet. "Once we were able to do everything, that just simplified everything drastically and made everything so much nicer," Franusiak said.
In 2000, another major shift took place at the Office of Communications. Msgr. Lee moved to St. Ambrose Parish in South Buffalo, and Sister Fran took over his duties as campus minister at ECC South Campus Newman Center. Kevin Keenan, news director for WBEN-AM Radio, took over as director of Communications for the diocese, while Franusiak left his cubicle for the managing editor's office.
"I probably learned more from Kevin Keenan than anybody. He brought a solid professionalism to what he was doing," Franusiak said. "We were able to get our heads together and change the look of the paper, change the cover, made it more readable. It was so good to work with him."
"Rick is the epitome of a Catholic journalist," said Keenan. "I think he really understood what it means to communicate the message of the Church, not only to the diocese, but to the wider community that reads the Western New York Catholic."
As editor, Franusiak had some goals for the paper. As a former wedding photographer, he knew the value of an eye-catching picture on the cover or the inside, complementing a story.
"I wanted it to be more visual. I did want photos to be a certain size. Because our diocese is so large, we have so many stories we can run in the paper. The trouble is if you print a photo that's too small, it almost detracts from the page instead of enhancing it," he said. In 2011, he took the paper into full-color mode.
Keenan saw Franusiak's skills under pressure. Just a year after taking over the reins of the paper, terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center twin towers. Another plane was forced to crash into the Pentagon. The staff of the WNYC assembled 10 pages describing the destruction, sacrifice and heroism that followed.
"At a pretty difficult time in our nation's history, he really put together, and this was a team effort with the staff of the paper, what ended up being an award-winning edition of the paper," Keenan said. "I think the sensitivity in which the paper reported the story is a real reflection of Rick's understanding of the story and what it meant from a Catholic perspective."
In 2002 and 2005, the Western New York Catholic has received the first-place award in general excellence at the Catholic Press Association media conference, essentially being named the best Catholic paper in the country.
When he looks back at his career, big names stand out: Reagan, Clinton, O'Connor, John Paul.
When the pope came to Detroit in 1987, Franusiak hopped into his car and made the six-hour drive to Hart Plaza/the Silverdome.
"It was just amazing to see the impact. I was able to get fairly close a couple of times," he recalled. "It was so good to see people's reaction to him. Part of the whole media getting together for something like that is the herd mentality. You're herded and shuffled and given an itinerary that you're checking off, and you're running along with the crowd of media people. He was in a motorcade, going slow down the street. It was amazing to see people just cry. He would bless people. People would just have tears in their eyes, I suppose because he was a saint. That is one of my proudest times, that we were able to bring that back with us, as opposed to something from a service, and print that in our Western New York Catholic."
Interviewing religious dignitaries is a high point in anyone's career. Franusiak had the joy of speaking with Cardinal John O'Connor and Cardinal Edward Egan, who both served as archbishop of New York City.
"It was also really nice to meet and interview Cardinal O'Connor, Cardinal Egan, both from New York. Cardinal O'Connor especially. I probably spent a little bit more time with him. For some reason, he visited Buffalo quite a bit. I don't know if he was on that good of terms with Bishop (Edward) Head or if the diocese at that time had so much going on that he had to keep visiting us. Every time he'd come we'd interview him. He was just so nice. You think sometimes cardinals, that they're so busy, but he always took the time to talk to us and had a great sense of humor. He was a great man and strong religious leader. It was always good to bring that kind of story to the folks too."
Then there were the times he covered the visits of Presidents Reagan and Clinton to Buffalo.
"That part was nice too, to be able to cover leaders of America, too, and write and report on what they were doing," he said, recalling the extra security measures and metal detectors he had to pass through to sit in the same room as a president. "There's a certain amount of excitement about it. An energy. Even though the president would be talking there would be so much activity going on around him, Secret Service, folks double-checking this and that. It was a real interesting experience on my part."
As the paper prepares to turn the page, Franusiak trusts his staff to carry on its legacy, which includes four group CPAs along with no fewer than 13 individual awards for writing, design and photography. "I know I'm leaving the paper in really capable, reliable hands. The paper's not going to miss a beat without me being here. The staff is so good and so qualified and so professional that it will just pick everything up and run with it. I think the Western New York Catholic will always bring something special to the diocese. It really is a portrait of the life of the diocese."
He calls the four bishops he has worked under - Bishop Head, Bishop Henry Mansell, Bishop Edward Kmiec, and current shepherd Bishop Richard Malone - "wonderful" in their support of the paper.
"It's been my privilege to bring the work of those bishops to Catholics in the diocese," Franusiak said.
His immediate plans for retirement are just that, to be kick back and enjoy the summer. He may get back into writing, something that has taken a backseat to his role as editor.
"It was an honor, not only to bring those stories, but to be around the wonderful ministries that the diocese offers. It's just so good to report on the Office of Pro-Life and Parish Life and Faith Formation and Education. The people in this building have been, since I've been here, have been just so wonderful. They've brought their own faith to their ministries. Thank goodness I, and we at the paper, could cover those ministries and bring all the wonderful good things that they are doing to the people in the diocese," he said.
The free monthly Western New York Catholic newspaper operates thanks to the public's support of the Catholic Communication Campaign. The Catholic Communication Campaign helps us to grow in faith, worship, and witness. The collection will take place in most parishes the weekend of June 11-12. To donate online, click here.