When opportunity knocks, answer the door.
The son of a Philadelphia Bulletin proof room editor, having delivered newspapers and worked his way up the ranks as much as possible at The Hatboro Spirit and The Interboro Press, Bruce E. MacBain heard word of a small-town weekly newspaper that was available for sale in the northern reaches of Montgomery County. It did not take him long to determine his path for the rest of his life.
In 1958, at the age of 34, MacBain purchased the newspaper, the circulation, equipment and building on Main Street in Schwenksville and continued publishing the Schwenksville Item, which originated in the late 1800s, up until he sold the newspaper to Montgomery Newspapers in 1990 and began his retirement.
MacBain passed away Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, after a bout with pneumonia.
During those 32 years, he transformed the newspaper from hot lead typesetting to offset printing and marked the paper’s 100th anniversary. Though the paper has evolved through the years, becoming The Valley Item with Montgomery Media before merging into The Phoenix Reporter & Item in 2013, the impact of MacBain’s contributions to the paper helped it to grow and thrive and is still felt today.
The newspaper reported all the news and political intrigue of the region and excelled at high school sports coverage. Anyone who was a student of Schwenksville or Perkiomen Valley High Schools between 1958 and 1990 most probably had their name or photograph in The Item at one time or another.
He was a strong advocate of the Borough of Schwenksville and the quaint, rural features the town and its people had to offer. Being an advocate of education, he not only reported on the conglomeration of the Schwenksville Area School District and the Collegeville-Trappe School District into the Perkiomen Valley School District in 1970, he became a member of the Board of School Directors of the district, and was elected to serve as the President of the Board of School Directors of the district. Not bad for someone who started out as a school custodian at the same high school from which he had recently graduated.
This meant at times MacBain would have to report on his own actions. He was fairly successful in separating his roles and the different hats he wore when he objectively wrote about the actions of the Perkiomen Valley School Board on page one, editorialized his thoughts on the appropriateness of the actions on page three, and ran the legally required advertising of upcoming Board meetings on page six. He wrote as if he were talking to a neighbor sitting on a porch.
Not able to compete with, nor fill the role of the big daily newspapers, MacBain fashioned the Schwenksville Item into an ongoing journal of the lives of those living in the area, and the events that affected valley residents. Sure, the locals could watch the televised news, or follow another dismal Phillies season in the daily papers, but to find out all of the details of how the Schwenksville Bluebirds did in Saturday’s Inter-County League football game, or to check the used car inventory at Tom Forsyth’s Chevrolet, you had to read The Item.
Often on scene reporting on a local event, MacBain could be found wrestling with his Polaroid camera, trying to find the perfect shot to accompany an article.
The Item was also an early champion of The Philadelphia Folk Festival and was integral in helping to secure its current home in Upper Salford Township. The now nationally recognized event was initially frowned upon by most local residents fearing it might bring an undesirable element into the community.
He foresaw the upside and potential of bringing The Folk Festival to the area and helped to convince the community to welcome it’s presence. The Philadelphia Folk Festival has thrived and become a reliable commercial draw to the area and is a major fundraising source for local volunteer fire companies, and is enjoying its 52nd year this weekend.
MacBain thoroughly enjoyed the small town environment then offered by the Perkiomen Valley area. His days were filled with three-hour long excursions on 10-minute trips to pick up a gallon of milk. His shopping cart would never roll for long as he would stop in every aisle to chat with someone. He learned to pick up the ice cream last at Renninger’s Market, so that it would not melt before he could get it home.
Some typing at an old Underwood Five typewriter, a nap and a short round of fetch with the dog usually preceded his time to pick up “friend wife” Florence at her job as police communications operator with the Pennsylvania State Police. Days would be fairly slow until hustling was needed to meet an upcoming deadline, and the paper was printed and put to bed.
It is not so common these days that a 34-year-old can design their entire life and spend the rest of their days exactly as they would like, but Bruce MacBain found a way to do so, all while raising a family, keeping “friend wife” happy and, for the most part, staying out of trouble.
Many folks in the Perkiomen Valley are glad he answered the door.
Phoenix Reporter & Item editor Matthew D’Ippolito contributed to this story.