The end of summer has offered especially juicy morsels for any local news columnist in Frederick County.
Protesters picketed a business that fired an employee for heckling President Bush. The Board of Education kicked off a pilot program with all-male classes to raise the boys' test scores. The Ethics Commission was delving into the conduct of two county commissioners, and Frederick police started posting pictures of suspected prostitutes and their alleged customers on the department's Web site.
As if that were not enough, just over the border in Washington County, the Ku Klux Klan stirred a fuss out of all proportion to the tiny number (nine) who marched through Sharpsburg.
So, amid a pundit's smorgasbord almost too rich for late summer, it came as a surprise that Roy Meachum, whose voice had been thundering and entertaining three times a week for about 20 years in the Frederick News-Post, had fallen silent.
To his many, many fans, the sudden end came as a loss. To his many, many victims, the end came not a moment too soon. But almost everyone expressed surprise.
"He was probably the first thing people turned the paper to," said Earl "Rocky" Mackintosh, a businessman and vice president of the Defenders of Citizens Rights Inc., a property rights group. "Others avoided reading him like the plague."
Ask Meachum, and he says he was fired. Ask the newspaper, and it says it was a contractual misunderstanding.
Whatever it was, the end of an institution had people talking as Frederick County residents awakened last week to the possibility that there would be no more hide-flaying blasts at county Board of Commissioners President John L. "Lennie" Thompson Jr. (R), no more ink bombs heaved at Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty (D), and no more rambling, sometimes lyrical, sometimes purple meditations, about art, his native Louisiana, his elderly mother, the Roman Catholic Church or his four-footed sidekick, Pushkin. (It's an English pointer -- not a Dalmatian, he says.)
"I think it's a tragedy," said Michael L. Cady, vice president of the Board of Commissioners. "He stimulates people to think. He's entertaining. He has a 20-year history with our community. I think he's the most popular columnist in Frederick County."
Well, maybe not popular, Cady hastened to add -- but a must-read.
"Monday, Wednesday, Friday -- you go to the editorial page to see who has the Roy Meachum target on him today," Cady said.
Down the hall at the Board of Commissioners offices, however, Thompson practically kicked up his heels.
Over the years, Meachum has lumped Thompson -- far and away his favorite punching bag -- in with Nazi Germany's show trials, communist commissars and the Klan.
But Thompson also punched back. He hung a T-shirt in Winchester Hall that says, "Roy Meachum . . . another word for liar." He sought -- unsuccessfully -- to pass an official resolution to the same effect. He invites any and all to view the montage of Meachum's anti-Lennie columns plastered on his office door.
Several concern Thompson's opposition to plans by a group of Muslims to build the county's first mosque. Thompson voted to deny the group water access, citing concerns about overdevelopment in that part of the county. Meachum still thrashed Thompson -- and the two commissioners who aligned with him -- for the decision four years ago.
"In more than 30 years [in office], he by far is the worst journalist -- that includes reporters, columnists and editorial writers -- he by far is the worst I hope I've ever seen," Thompson said.
Dougherty, who has typically been depicted by Meachum as an iron-fisted, duplicitous shrew, said she was stunned by his departure.
"Okay -- I had to say, 'It's not my birthday, and it's not April Fools' Day? You're not kidding?' " the mayor said. "He was not right, about all the time."
Others mourned the end of his column.
"I think he was intelligent. I think he was a decent man," said Elizabeth Prongas, who heads the New Forest Society in Rocky Ridge. "Sometimes I think he was getting out of his depth on some of the subjects he covered. But most of the things he wrote were excellent."
Meachum, a self-described curmudgeon who delighted in casting himself as a progressive voice in a conservative wilderness, said the paper's new management fired him Aug. 23 because he was critical of its performance.
"It's monstrous at the age of damn near 76 to be kicked out on the street while trying to uphold the integrity of the paper," Meachum said last week. He suggests that he was ousted because he criticized the paper's coverage of ethics investigations into Thompson and Cady.
News-Post Managing Editor Dave Elliott referred questions to publisher Myron W. Randall. Randall, who assumed the publisher's title after the death of his brother, George E. Randall, in May, replied by e-mail that the "issues surrounding Roy are an internal personnel matter and are inappropriate to discuss in a public forum."
In an e-mail to Cady, however, Randall advised the commissioner that Meachum was not fired for supporting Cady nor "for any other position he has taken in his columns." Randall also wrote Cady that he had invited Meachum to continue writing columns but said he wasn't interested in printing three every week. Randall said Meachum "had taken the posture of three or nothing."
The News-Post has replaced Meachum with a snowy-bearded doppelganger. In fact, newly appointed columnist Joe Volz resembles Meachum so strongly that Frederick Magazine ran a photo spread of the pair a while back. Even stranger: One of Volz's first columns, about the Bush heckler, was headlined, "The Firing Heard Round the World."
Randall said the decision was made only to change the editorial page makeup. An e-mail from the publisher to Meachum, in fact, suggests that Meachum had outworn his audience: A 2002 reader survey found that 63 percent of the paper's readers wished to give his column the heave-ho.
"Love him or hate him, I think he did what an opinion columnist is supposed to do -- generate reader response and feedback," said Richard B. Weldon Jr., a Republican delegate to the General Assembly.
Alan Feinberg, a civic activist, said: "I got bored with his dog, and Louisiana, and his mother, and the drama critic thing after a while. But when he was at his best . . . he kept the place alive.
"When he was wrong, he was really wrong. When he was right, he was half-right."