Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund: Donating in memory of old-school reporter

Sidney F. Smith, ca. 1962.

Sidney F. Smith, ca. 1962.

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 11-29-2023 8:49 PM

AMHERST — Deep into the night following Select Board meetings and Town Meeting sessions in the 1970s and 1980s, Nancy Newcombe would be in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Amherst Bulletin or Amherst Record newsrooms writing her stories for next-day publication.

Phyllis Lehrer, who continues to pen The Lehrer Report for the Bulletin, says her longtime colleague and friend was a wonderful mentor whose reporting was accurate, fair and honest.

“She cared deeply about the town, government and the residents,” Lehrer said of Newcombe, who was 74 when she died in December 2005. “Besides our working relationship, we were friends after work, sharing many meals and birthdays.”

Lehrer said Newcombe was tenacious in getting news, and that being a smoker likely helped her at that. “The smokers would take breaks during meetings and Nancy would be there listening, asking questions,” Lehrer said. “Then she would later formally ask the same questions on the record.”

To honor Newcombe’s memory, each year Lehrer makes a donation to the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund.

Named after a former business manager at the Gazette, the Toy Fund began in 1933 to help families in need during the Depression. Today, the fund distributes vouchers worth $50 to qualifying families for each child from age 1 to 14.

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To be eligible for the Toy Fund, families must live in any Hampshire County community except Ware, or in the southern Franklin County towns of Deerfield, Sunderland, Whately, Shutesbury and Leverett, and in Holyoke in Hampden County.

A graduate of Boston University, Newcombe moved to Amherst with her husband, David B. Newcombe, beginning a career at the Amherst Record as a cooking columnist, then later a political writer and features columnist. She co-founded Amherst News in the early 1980s, before being hired to the staff at the Bulletin and Gazette.

Former state Senate President Stan Rosenberg is among those who recalls Newcombe as a fierce advocate for the right of people to know, and the responsibility of journalists to find things out and provide information.

“Those of us who knew Nancy well knew she had a heart of gold,” Rosenberg said, adding that the Toy Fund is a logical way to honor her memory. “Nancy would want kids to have a reason for joy, and for the biggest smile of the year when something came their way that they really, really wanted.”

Nancy Eddy, who served on the Amherst Select Board in the 1970s, said she would return home to tell her husband about the board’s deliberations and actions before a newspaper story was printed.

The next day, in reading the newspaper report, “He sometimes would comment, ‘that doesn’t sound like the same meeting you told me about!’” Eddy recalled. “He never said that when the article was written by Nancy. She was unfailingly accurate and insightful.”

Newcombe was also the voice of Town Meeting, doing the play-by-play commentary for Amherst Community Television, and was responsible for the “Warrant in English,” which aimed to decipher actions that would be taken at Town Meeting.

Sherry Wilson, another former Gazette and Bulletin staffer, cites Newcombe as a mentor, spending many late nights with her in the office.

“She was a highly knowledgeable reporter and a very fair one,” Wilson said. “I think Town Hall officials, Town Meeting members and her readers all respected her very much.”

In Newcombe’s later years, when she had to lug around an oxygen tank, Wilson said all colleagues worried about her, but when they asked how she was, her reply was always, “terrific, just terrific.”

Eddy said Newcombe once told her that she was a member of the National Rifle Association. “I expressed surprise, knowing her feelings about gun control and any form of violence,” Eddy said. “She explained that her membership allowed her to obtain really excellent health insurance.”

Lehrer said whenever she watches the 1940 film “His Girl Friday,” starring Rosalind Russell as the ace reporter and ex-wife of Cary Grant as the editor, she thinks of her late friend.

“I see Roz Russell and say, ‘That’s Nancy,’” Lehrer said.

The following stores are participating in the Toy Fund this year: A2Z Science and Learning Store, 57 King St., Northampton; Blue Marble/Little Blue, 150 Main St., Level 1, Northampton; High Five Books, 141 N. Main St., Florence; The Toy Box, 201 N. Pleasant St., Amherst; Comics N More, 64 Cottage St., Easthampton; Once Upon A Child,1458 Riverdale St., West Springfield; Plato’s Closet, 1472 Riverdale St., West Springfield; Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters, 227 Russell St., Hadley; Odyssey Bookshop, 9 College St., Village Commons, South Hadley; The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, 125 W. Bay Road, Amherst; World Eye Bookshop, 134 Main St., Greenfield; Holyoke Sporting Goods Co., and 1584 Dwight St. No. 1, Holyoke.