Janet Armantrout, the Independent’s editor for more than 30 years, died Saturday of complications related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was 77.
In her years as editor, the newspaper she led emphasized responsible civic growth, protection of the environment, historic preservation and coverage of the arts.
Her death and the diagnosis itself came as a surprise to many. Armantrout continued work until a week before her death, reviewing copy, preparing the community calendar and making editorial decisions while at home under daily care.
Responding to her death, Joan Seppala, owner and publisher of the Independent, said, “The pain of losing Janet after 55 years is great, both for me personally and for all who knew her in the community.
“Although reserved in many ways, when it came to editorial issues, Janet was decisive. She respected both sides of an issue, and was firm in what she thought was fair.
“In addition to covering major one-off issues, Janet took on a large number of regular beats, including Livermore and Pleasanton city councils, Livermore school district, Livermore park district and a host of sporadic meetings. She worked hard and efficiently.
“Janet was very caring. She would spend time with a caller who wanted a story about a personal issue, however small. She enjoyed assembling the school sports stories and the entire arts tabloid.
“Janet’s idea of publishing on the front page the Pet of the Week, a picture and caption about a dog or cat up for adoption, triggered some discussion. Although not hard news typical of front page coverage, they were emblematic of Janet and the paper’s concern for the disadvantaged. The Pet of the Week became a regular feature.
“Because Janet’s focus was on truth, not her ego, she had no problem changing her mind when the facts justified it. From time to time over the years, she and I started out on different sides of a topic, but in the end, one or the other of us switched.
Seppala concluded, “The Independent transitioned to new editorial management a week ago last Monday. The new staff understands the values that Janet and The Independent have supported over the decades, and are committed to carrying them forward.”
Armantrout became co-editor of the Independent on Feb. 17, 1988, sharing the job with the late Robert Several. She became sole editor of the newspaper Oct. 4, 1989.
She joined the young Independent in 1964, a year after its founding, not in a writing job, but in production, pasting ads and laying out the paper for printing. She continued to contribute to the production effort throughout her career.
By the end of the 1960s, the newspaper and Armantrout herself discovered that she had a talent for journalism. She began covering sports and rewriting press releases in addition to her production tasks.
As time passed, she took on writing assignments of increasing responsibility, including covering Livermore City Council at the request of Bob Several, who had been named editor in 1968.
In an interview just before her death, Armantrout recalled that Several had long covered the council, but was finding that he couldn’t do justice to both reporting and editing jobs. He asked her to take his place at council meetings, which she did – and continued to do for the next four decades, even after she became editor.
Her time as a reporter included a year when the Independent lost a majority of its advertising because local business interests were angered by its support of a growth-limiting initiative.
That was 1972, when the newspaper operated on a shoestring, sometimes making payroll only with the help of personal loans from community members.
At one point, reporters, including Armantrout, faced a choice of layoffs or a pay cut. They met and unanimously chose a pay cut in order to continue covering the news they considered important.
Armantrout was born in Salt Lake City in 1942, the third of seven siblings. The family moved several times in response to her father’s work assignments as a metallurgist with the U.S. Bureau of Mines.
In time, the family settled in Corvallis, Oregon, where Armantrout attended Corvallis High School and graduated from Oregon State University.
Interest in visual art ran in the family, perhaps because Armantrout’s mother was an artist. Armantrout sought out classes in fine arts and art history, an interest reflected in her support of the arts scene in the Tri-Valley.
She was also a lifelong lover of wildlife. She sent reporters to cover Altamont wind turbine injuries to eagles and other birds. She supported animal protection organizations like the Humane Society, and adopted kittens into her home as long as her health allowed.
An avid sports enthusiast, she followed the Raiders until their decision to move to Las Vegas, when she turned her support to the 49ers.
Friends and colleagues recalled her as quiet to the point of shyness, but firm in her conviction that the Independent could and should be used to build a vibrant but kind community that served everyone.
Reporter Ron McNicoll, who started at the Independent in 1967, described Armantrout as “one of the gentlest people I have ever known. Some people are devout in their religion. Janet was devout in caring about people and animals.
“She was supportive of people in her editorials and choices of stories, especially by playing up the work of volunteers. Many stories were about social services organizations who work with people struggling to make ends meet.
“Janet was something of a shy person, but she spoke from the heart, and she herself was indefatigable. I will miss her, and so will many others in this Valley.”