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Fred VandenBrand – a hall of fame journalist

• May 29, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Michigan has a journalism hall of fame. It features an illustrious group of journalists, including two of my favorite Detroit News writers — Joe Falls and Pete Waldmeir.

I certainly agree that Falls and Waldmeir belong in the hall of fame, as well as many other notable journalists in the state. According to the Michigan Hall of Fame, nominees are judged on their contributions to Michigan journalism, courage, innovation and leadership.

While he isn’t in the hall of fame, Fred VandenBrand, former managing editor of the Grand Haven Tribute, fits those attributes.

Fred worked 35 years at the Tribune, including the last 20 as managing editor before retiring in 1998. Fred was one of the most respected editors in the state. He was the key factor in the growth of the Tribune.

Fred was hired by another former Tribune icon — Clarence “Tad” Poel. Fred was a crackerjack police reporter before taking over the helm as managing editor.

Fred and I go back to 1985 when he hired me to become sports editor. One year later, I was promoted to news editor, a job I held until Fred left. I was named his replacement.

Fred had a nose for news and passed that trait on too many of us who had the pleasure of working for him. He worked tirelessly to ensure the Tribune was covering the community as well as possible.

A good example of his tenacious approach to journalism occurred one Saturday when we were both working. At the time, the Tribune published on Saturday afternoons, so Fred and I would often eat breakfast at the Dee Lite before going to work. As we were being served, a waitress told Fred that she had seen “a bunch of police cars” near Jackson Street, not far from our office.

Usually, Fred and I took our time eating, talking about the work that awaited us and about the latest sports news. But I could tell Fred wanted to find out why there were so many police cars at one place. We quickly ate our breakfast, and Fred hurried to the scene where all the police cars were parked. It turns out that a man had killed a woman acquaintance. Fred had the story for that day’s paper. Randall Cherry was later convicted of murder and is serving a life sentence in a Michigan prison.

One of the biggest stories in the history of the Tribune occurred on one December evening when Grand Haven police officer Scott Flahive was shot to death by an escapee from the Ottawa County Jail. Fred quickly lined up a strategy for covering this tragic event. The next day’s edition had a detailed story of the tragedy, as well as other related stories. The intensive coverage would continue until Keith Harbin was sentenced to life in prison for murdering officer Flahive.

Through the years, there were countless other major news stories in the Tribune, which demonstrated Fred’s journalistic and leadership skills.

Fred even cared about the welfare of his employees. Fred and I were on our way to a journalism seminar in Indianapolis one weekend when he noticed me sneezing and coughing. He bought me some peppermint schnapps. Man, it did the trick.

Fred’s reputation as an editor was impeccable. He helped develop many young journalists who moved on to bigger careers and was well-respected as a leader in the community.

After Fred retired, I would do exit interviews with reporters who were moving on to other ventures. One reporter, who accepted another job, told me that one reason that she decided to move on was because she missed Fred’s ability to make newspaper work fun.

She had a great point. For example, we used to have an intense rivalry with the Muskegon Chronicle. The Chronicle had an office in Grand Haven staffed by very competent reporters. But one day, Fred decided to have a little fun with our competitor. We scooped the Chronicle on a very important story. Fred called the Chronicle office and disguised his voice as an elderly woman and inquired why the Chronicle didn’t have the story he read in the Tribune. We all laughed.

As well as an outstanding journalist, Fred has been a devoted family man. He and his wife, Martha, enjoy spending time with their children: Todd, Julie and Joe, and their grandchildren.

While he is retired from the Tribune, Fred still likes to keep active. He is now is assistant athletic director for Western Michigan Christian High School, his alma mater. Fred continues to be a leader in working with young people.

In my book, Fred VandenBrand is a hall of famer.

— By Len Painter, Tribune community columnist

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