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Littleton loses community treasure

Ellie Gardner peruses Ellie’s Kitchen, a collection of her recipes during an interview when it came out in 2004. Lorna Colquhoun.
August 19, 2009
LITTLETON—Ellie Gardner had two great passions—her hometown of Littleton and cooking.

Over a career that spanned three decades, she was able to blend them together each week in the pages of the Littleton Courier, where she first worked with her brothers, Jack and Reg Colby, from the early 1970s until she retired in 2003.

Just as salt and pepper are staples in any kitchen, so was Ellie in the lives of local residents, for it was her keen interest in local news that kept them informed each week and her down home recipes that have been clipped from the pages and served in many a kitchen and even church suppers over the years.

"She's a lady who has closed a chapter on reporting in the North Country and that's sad, because we'll never see someone like that again," said Louis Babin, retired Littleton police chief who saw Ellie on a weekly basis when she came looking for the news of the week.

Eleanor Jean Colby Gardner died last Thursday at the age of 83.

"She was born in Littleton and was very proud of her hometown," her son, Scott, said, and, except for a few years in Lancaster, she lived in town all of her life.

The daughter of Charles Colby, a former Littleton fire chief and police officer, and Apthorp schoolteacher Ethel Berry Colby, Ellie married Mark Gardner in 1947. The couple, who would have five children, owned two ESSO service stations in Littleton in the 1960s.

When her husband died in 1974, Ellie had been working for a couple of years with her brothers at the Courier, when it was located across the street from Porfido's Market.

"She went to work in the early 1970s and then stayed through multiple owners," Scott Gardner said.

Ellie wore many hats at the Courier, from proofreader to reporter and photographer to editor and food columnist. In a way, she was ahead of her time, for long before social networking and spell check, it was she who coordinated social news and strived to keep typos and grammatical errors out of each and every edition of the Courier.

"She was a human spell check," said former publisher Olivia Garfield. "She would no more end a sentence with a preposition than start a sentence with 'and.' She did things the old-fashioned way and I felt having someone like that in the newsroom was invaluable."

While some reporters live for the big stories, Ellie did not.

"She was a different type of reporter," said Babin, who was with the Littleton police department for 28 years, before he retired in 2001. "By the time she got the police log every Monday, the news was a week old, but she always made sure to focus attention on the department itself."

In her tenure, she made sure every first day of school was covered with photos and an interview with the principal. In 1989, Ellie reported on Red Ribbon Week, what is now the oldest and largest drug prevention campaign in the country.

Babin said she clearly had a love and respect for law enforcement, which no doubt came from her father, who had served as town fire chief and on the police department.

"There was nothing too small for Ellie to cover," he said. "She came in every Monday. She didn't do the big news—she didn't cover murders or anything like that, but she covered the day to day things in the community."

Ellie had an eye for local news, knowing that the milestones of social organizations, from the Freemasons to the Order of the Eastern Star, were important to have covered in the local newspaper.

"I worked with Ellie in my first (newspaper) job," said Jayne O'Connor, of Franconia, who is now president of White Mountains Attractions in North Woodstock. "I had just come out of communications school and I thought I knew it all. But it was Ellie who taught me the importance of local news—that it was important to tell people what was going on. So much happens that is a part of smalltown life, day in and day out."

Those who worked with Ellie in and out of the Courier newsroom remember a woman who was a lady. Jim McIntosh, publisher of the late Ammonoosuc Times, remembers sharing a table with her at what is now Sherwin Dodge in the 1980s, reading book proofs for the Phoenix Press, which published local histories.

"The editor at Phoenix was Lex Paradis. He was a perfectionist, but Ellie put him in the shade," he said. "I found Ellie very exacting but also patient and friendly. We shared an enjoyment of writing equaled only by her friend and classmate, the late Wilbur Willey. She was of a generation that lived for the printed word. She taught me a lot."

Garfield remembered the advice of a former Courier editor years ago.

"He said that it was so important to cherish an older woman in the newsroom," she said. "Not only is she a font of information, but she knows how to spell."

In the early 1990s, one day while putting the paper to bed, Ellie and Garfield were lining up a cooking contest.

"I said it would be nice if we could do something with the recipes in the paper and I asked Ellie if she would like to take on the project," Garfield said. "She was thrilled."

So was born Ellie's Kitchen, which over the next decade was a popular weekly Courier feature.

"I'm not a gourmet cook," Ellie said in a 2004 interview.

But over the years, she passed on recipes that were seasonally appropriate to the week's edition and also built around weekly specials at the local grocery stores. She typically featured new ways to serve old favorites. With five children and a job, she often shared recipes that were quick.

"I used my crock pot a lot," she said. "I would always put something in the crock pot before I went to work."

Ellie retired from the Courier in 2003 and it was only after she no longer did her column that she realized just how much people missed what was going on in her kitchen. Hearing that she missed doing her column, McIntosh asked her to revive it for his newspaper and later published a collection of her recipes in a book, Ellie's Kitchen.

"She never missed a deadline," McIntosh said. "If she expected to be absent, she would submit several columns in advance. In 2004, I suggested that we publish a collection of her recipes, a year's worth in chronological order. We had a lot of fun with that project. The fun of Ellie's Kitchen was how she marked the progress of the seasons with recipes appropriate to the occasion—maple, rhubarb, strawberries, zucchini, apples, pumpkin, and so on."

In an industry that typically sees reporters and editors move on to bigger newspapers in larger markets, Ellie chronicled life in the town where she was born and raised her children.

Babin, in remembering her, referred to seven scrapbooks he assembled over his professional career, with most of its contents written by her and no doubt, her stories and photos make up a large part of other scrapbooks kept by children and their parents over the years.

"Ellie Gardner is not just a writer," Willey wrote in the introduction to Ellie's Kitchen. "She is a writer with dreams and a cook with a vision."

Funeral services for Ellie will be at 11 a.m., Friday, at the First United Methodist Church, 18 Main St., in Littleton, followed by burial at the Glenwood Cemetery.

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