Randy Stapilus founded Ridenbaugh Press in 1988 (as publisher of his book Paradox Politics) and the same-named web site and blog in 1994, making it one of the oldest political-oriented blogs in the Northwest. He edits and publishes the Idaho Weekly Briefing e-publication and the National Water Rights Digest), and writes a column on Idaho for several newspapers in the region.
I’m a native of Newport News, Virginia, in the southeast part of the state on the James River, near where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Recorded history goes back a long way here; my home was within 20 minutes or so of Jamestown (from 1607, the first permanent English settlement in what is now the United States), Williamsburg (for decades the colonial capitol of Virginia, and now wonderfully preserved) and Yorktown (site of the last decisive battle of the American Revolution). My city was named not for its qualities as a port (which are significant to this day) but for Captain Christopher Newport, who commanded one of the first ships arriving arriving at Jamestown. It was tromped over a lot in the Civil War too (growing up there in the 1960s exposed me to a lot of centennial Civil War history), and was the site of a big battle at Hampton Roads, the waterway where the James enters the Chesapeake.
The area where I grew up, about halfway between downtown Newport News and Williamsburg, felt at the time semi-rural, and hadn’t been even mostly built in until my parent’s generation came along and subdivided much of the area. My parents had arrived in the area in the late 40s when my dad, after serving in the Air Force in World War II, went to work at Langley Air Force Base, though as a civilian technician, for the agency that became the National Aeronautic and Space Administration. Both my parents were natives of Rockford, Illinois, second-generation Americans. (The roots on my father’s side are Lithuanian, on my mother’s side Swedish.)
The area had a strong military orientation, ringed as it was with various sorts of bases – in addition to Langley, there was Fort Monroe Naval, For Eustis Army and others – and so the area drew in people from around the country. For that reason it never felt especially southern, not like many communities only a few miles away, and not even like Richmond, which was only an hour’s drive or so.
I lived my first 18 years there, graduating from high school (a year early, which gave me a year’s opportunity to do some other things before college). But our family liked to travel, and I determined to head to a far corner of the country when time came to resume school. That would be Idaho; after my father and I traveled around the country in the fall of 1973 and spent several weeks based at Coeur d’Alene, my mind was made up to apply to the University of Idaho at Moscow. The first half of 1974, I was back in Virginia building up savings by working at the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company, which was by far the biggest employer in town. It was a good employer but my interest was in history, and in journalism – really, in the intersection between the two. In August, my dad and I drove back to Idaho, where he dropped me off at Moscow. (My parents would come out to Idaho to live, first at Boise and then at Caldwell, a couple of years later.)
My major at UI was journalism and much of my focus of attention at UI was on the student newspaper, the Argonaut, for which I wrote during my time there. It was a great experience, and gave me some feel for what working for a professional newspaper would be like; up to then I’d done no more than a handful of articles for my high school newspapers. The university gave me a long list of initial Idaho connections as well. My first reporting beat at the Argonaut was student government; the student president then was Dirk Kempthorne, who would later become a mayor of Boise (I would cover his first public office campaign for that too, 20 years later), a U.S. senator, governor and secretary of the interior. He was just one example. A long list of the people I met back then have remained active in Idaho public affairs ever since. The UI connections in Idaho politics run deep, and I began to pick up a feel for the history of Idaho politics during my time there.
I’ve often been restless about doing the same thing for a very long time, and after two years I decided to take a one-semester break before wrapping up college. It turned out to be something like the “three-hour tour” on Gilligan’s Island, though the results were more fortunate. I applied in the midsummer of 1976 for several idaho newspaper jobs and within a couple of months was hired at one of them, at the Caldwell News Tribune (then linked to but not yet absorbed by the Nampa Idaho Free Press). The editor, Rick Coffman, wanted my commitment however to stay at least a year, understandably taking the view that he didn’t want to re-fill the job only a few months down the road. I agreed, and wound up staying there through 1977, covering county government, courts, some police activity, the local school board and odds and ends. It was a great general introduction to working in a small-town daily newspaper. Then I persuaded the News-Tribune and Free Press to let me cover the 1978 Idaho Legislature for them – couldn’t pass up that chance. But I still intended to head back north, soon after, to finish at UI.
The interruption this time came from Pocatello, from where a journalism acquaintance, Dan Flynn, called to say he was about to leave his job as political reporter at the Idaho State Journal, and that I should apply. Since full-time political reporting had specifically been my goal, I couldn’t pass that up either, and was hired on at the Journal in April 1978. It was a hot and busy time in Idaho politics, full of colorful figures (does it just seem they’re more bleached out now? – no, they really were more lively then). It meant covering a string of great races in 1978 and in 1980, the campaign of a generation and more in Idaho politics, the Senate battle between Frank Church and Steve Symms, one of the most closely-watched contests in the country. To this day it seems to me to be the great head-to-head political contest in Idaho history, period, and being able to spent close to full time covering it was a terrific experience.
After that I wanted to do something a little different, of course, and I asked to set up a year-round statehouse bureau in Boise for the Journal. It was an unusual request; the Journal had been routinely staffing legislative coverage for a quarter of each year, and occasionally sending someone to cover this or that Boise event. I made the argument that financial sense weighed in favor of keeping someone there around the year. I sold the idea, but after two years when (predictably) I was ready to do something else, the idea was dropped, and my sucessor as political reporter came back to Pocatello after the 1983 session.
For the next year and a half I was editorial page editor of the Journal, which opened me much more to the idea and practice of opinion writing, and to editing, than I’d been before as a news reporter. Later on, close to half of my time at the Idaho Statesman would be spent helping out on the editorial page there, and my years as a columnist too grew to a great extent out of that work on the editorial page.
But by the summer of 1984 I was ready to move on from Pocatello, and back into news reporting. One of the best stories in Idaho then was the intense battle in the city of Boise over downtown redevelopment and efforts to build a regional shopping mall. That may sound like a limited issue but it was as engrossing as could be, and the politics of it made clear that this long-running battle – more than a dozen years old by the time I started covering it – was reaching a climax. I was able to report on the heated and complex final stages of the battle, and then afterward move on to a “special projects” reporting job at the Statesman.
That was supposed to mean an investigative reporting job, and I did some of that work, but the shifts in the newsroom cast me in other directions. After various arrivals and departures, I wound up as political editor, designing and leading political coverage, in 1988. Working in this role at the largest newspaper in the state had its advantages, but two things were pointing me toward the door. One was a change in management, coupled with changes in corporate policy, that I felt undercut political news coverage at the paper, and that made me increasingly uncomfortable and eventually angry. The other was my publication, in 1988, of my first book, Paradox Politics, which gave me thought about writing and published somewhere other than in newspapers.
In early 1990, I left the Statesman to work (briefly) at KBCI-TV (channel 2) as the managing editor – basically, assignment editor – but television clearly wasn’t going to be my long-range career, and I stayed there just a few month. That spring I started work full-time as the sole employee of Ridenbaugh Press. Ridenbaugh has changed its direction from time to time, and its location from Boise to Carlton, Oregon, but I’ve been there ever since.
I started out with a periodical on Idaho state rules and regulations, which over the years morphed into the current Idaho Weekly Briefing. Later I added publications covering Oregon and Washington (those were suspended in the spring of 2015), and also added periodicals on water rights, starting with coverage of the Snake River Basin Adjudication in 1993. The current National Water Rights Digest grew out of that.
The core of Ridenbaugh, though, always has been its books. From 1990 to 2001, for example, I published a regular series of political almanacs and other Idaho reference books. These kept me traveling quite a bit around the region.
I also worked on a number of outside projects. One of these was Justice for the Times, a history of the Idaho courts. A followup on that effort in 1992, a series of biogrpahical sketches of the state supreme court justices, brought me to the Idaho State Bar, where I met Linda Watkins, who was then the communications director there. We’ve been together ever since, and for quite a few years we’ve been married, and she’s been my partner in Ridenbaugh Press.
We also pursued other adventures. In 1996 and 1997 we spent most of our time on the road, visiting all 48 of the “lower” states, an exploration that still leaves us with strong impressions about the parts of this country. (Taken as a whole it is, for one thing, more stunningly beautiful than either of us would have believed.) We made three big loops, the first two in a Suburban hauling a trailer in which we lived. The last was in a small Kia, out of which we mostly stayed at motels coast to coast. (We were taking everything we needed for several months along with a cat and an 80-pound dog. That alone gave us plenty of stories to tell.)
In 2002 we both worked on political campaigns in Idaho, both running and working with various campaigns, all of which lost. (Which, I think, would have happened with or without our participation.) The experience gave both of us a little different angle on state politics.
In some ways, it also meant we’d pushed our Idaho experience – Linda had been in Idaho even slightly longer than I had – long enough. In March 2004 we decamped for Carlton, Oregon, settling into a small house we thought would hold us for at most a year or so. We’re still there. Carlton is a delightful small community.
A few years later in that decade, the arrival of digital print on demand book printing changed our work and our thoughts about book publishing at Ridenbaugh Press. Flexibility became the new order of the day – it was a world away from the kind of effort needed to publish Paradox Politics and its successors – and beginning in 2009 we started publishing a large number of books, many more than we had before.
The variety has been wonderful, from the archeological historical research of Diamondfield to the overviews of Idaho 100, from the gritty memoir of a brother in One Flaming Hour to witty columns about motherhood in Raising the Hardy Boys. Scan through the list of books and you’ll find a variety of subjects and approaches. The circle continues to expand.
I’ve been writing elsewhere in this new millennium too. I’ve written several series books for imprints of the Globe-Pequot Press (now in the Rowman & Littlefield Group, for which I have two more series books in the pipeline as this is written). James Weatherby and I also collaborated on a book about Idaho government called Governing Idaho, published by the Caxton Press. And since the fall of 2013 I’ve been writing online articles for BookWorks, an association (partnered in by the trade publication Publishers Weekly) for small and independent publishers.
The list continues to grow . . .