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How a restless couple established a Durango legacy tradition

Morley and Arthur Ballantine took a big leap in the 1950s
Arthur and Morley Ballantine over looking Durango. (Durango Herald file)

When Morley and Arthur Ballantine arrived in Durango in 1952 with four young children, they had some adjustments to make.

Morley grew up in the Midwest, in Des Moines and Minneapolis, while Arthur was a product of the East Coast with a Harvard undergraduate and Yale law education. Their knowledge of the lifestyle of a small town in the remote Four Corners was limited.

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Ballantine Communications is celebrating 70 years of ownership. Please join us for an informal open house at 5 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 18, or 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 19, at The Durango Herald office, 1275 Main Ave.

But after making their purchase of two Durango newspapers in May 1952, they arrived with plenty of media business knowledge and a plan: Run a financially successful daily newspaper, accept no compromises in journalistic integrity, and make a difference in their adopted community.

Unflinching as they faced criticism and pushback from certain elements of the community, that is what they proceeded to do. They brought stability to a newspaper market that had seen owners come and go in rapid succession for several decades. And they brought a strong voice that championed progress in infrastructure, business and politics – a voice that helped drag a rural area into the modern era.

Seventy years later, their children and grandchildren continue this unwavering tradition.

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Elizabeth Morley Cowles was born into a newspaper-owning family in 1925. Her grandfather, Gardner Cowles, had invested in a struggling paper in Des Moines in 1903 and turned the Register and Tribune into a model of 20th century business and journalistic success. The family purchased a newspaper in Minneapolis in 1935 and created the same standard at the Star and Tribune.

Morley, the eldest of four siblings, learned the newspaper world but, as a female of the day, was perhaps denied a prominent role in the family business. Educational yearnings and circumstance took her to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Stanford University on the other coast.

Born in 1914, Arthur Ballantine Jr. was the son of a nationally renowned Manhattan attorney. Arthur Sr. became a tax expert and served as undersecretary of the treasury under President Herbert Hoover; he is credited by many for designing the plan that began pulling the country out of financial chaos as President Franklin D. Roosevelt – Arthur Sr.’s fellow Harvard Crimson editor – took office in 1933.

Arthur Jr., after joining a prominent New York City legal firm and then serving as skipper of a Navy subchaser during the bloody 1943 Italian campaign during World War II, decided to set his own path. After the war, in 1946, he started out as a reporter with the Minneapolis Tribune – one of the Cowles papers.

Morley and Arthur Jr. were married in Minneapolis in July 1947. Arthur continued working for the Minneapolis Star & Tribune in various capacities while Morley took care of a growing family. Both were itching for new horizons – a chance to make a difference somewhere. They began shopping for a newspaper in the West, and came upon an opportunity in a town of 7,000 in the Four Corners.

The Durango of 1952 offered unpaved streets, a decrepit public water system, a railroad with an uncertain future, a floundering two-year college 17 miles from town, and a huge challenge for a couple who faced an uncertain welcome in unfamiliar surroundings. They also had four young children: Richard, 6; Elizabeth, 3; Bill, 2; and Helen, 5 months.

Sarah Leavitt, Elizabeth’s daughter and member of the Ballantine Communications Inc. board, marvels at the fact that her grandparents even considered such a bold move in search of adventure. “Arthur and Morley took a huge risk on this place,” she says. “It seems almost ludicrous today that a couple would do that.”

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The Ballantines purchased the daily Durango Herald-Democrat and triweekly Durango News from separate owners, and officially took the reins on June 1, 1952.

“We come to Durango full of enthusiasm for the city and for the job ahead of us,” Arthur wrote in June 1952. “We will do our best to fulfill our responsibility to our readers and to the community.

“We will do our utmost to cooperate with efforts to make this area grow as an agricultural, business, and recreational center, to develop its great natural resources, and to make Durango an even pleasanter city in which to live.”

Their fearless editorial stances alienated some, but gained the respect of many others. Morley and Arthur campaigned editorially for improving the water system, paving more roads and moving the college from south of Hesperus to Durango. All met with opposition for various reasons, but all came to pass over the succeeding decades. The Ballantines and their children wove themselves into the fabric of the community. The paper grew in circulation, stature and financial stability. Morley and Arthur were named to local, state and even national boards and committees.

Arthur Ballantine’s sudden death of a heart attack on Nov. 14, 1975, at age 61, rocked the family and community. The children had by now begun lives away from Durango. If Morley wanted to leave, to perhaps return to her Midwest roots and family, this was a perfect time to do so.

But a bond had developed between the family and the town. Residents came out in droves for Arthur’s service, and Morley was bombarded with cards and visiting well-wishers. Any thoughts of abandoning Durango or the Herald quickly faded.

The four children had taken spots on the newspaper’s board of directors in 1974. Elizabeth stopped her studies back East and worked for a year as a Herald reporter. Richard returned to live in Durango in 1980 with wife Mary Lyn, and was named Herald publisher in 1983. Morley continued as editor, board chairman and weekly columnist, and began to steadily create a niche as supporter of causes from women’s rights and opportunities to higher education and more.

Arthur and Morley Ballantine with their children at The Durango Herald. (Durango Herald file)

Meanwhile, the journalistic standards established by the Herald in 1952 remained. By 1956, the Herald-News (it became simply the Herald in 1960) was given the Colorado Press Association’s General Excellence Award. In 1967, Arthur and Morley were jointly named Outstanding Journalists of Colorado by the University of Colorado’s journalism school.

Annual awards followed, but a few stand out. In 1997, Richard Ballantine was named Colorado Press Association’s Newspaper Person of the Year. In 2002, for its extensive coverage of the devastating Missionary Ridge Fire, the Herald earned the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Excellence in Journalism in public service from the Society of Professional Journalists. The Herald was always loud in support of press freedoms, always willing to battle to secure documents that should be available to the public, and in 2010 was given the Jean Otto Friend of Freedom Award by the Colorado Freedom of Information Council.

Morley Cowles Ballantine died in 2009, and her service brought hundreds of community mourners to the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College, a building she had played an instrumental part in raising money for in the 1990s.

Richard Ballantine retired as publisher in 2013, turning over the day-to-day reins of the business to a nonfamily member for the first time since 1952. The current CEO is Carrie Cass. But the family influence has continued. Richard stayed on as chairman of the board for the company, now called Ballantine Communications Inc., and also as chairman of the editorial board.

In 2022, the BCI board continues to be filled by several family members, including two of Morley and Arthur Ballantine’s children (Richard and Elizabeth), three grandchildren (Morley Healy, Chris Ballantine and Sarah Leavitt), and three nonfamily members.

The city’s population has nearly tripled, and the county’s has nearly quadrupled since Morley and Arthur arrived. Yet the standards they established in 1952 – providing strong journalism, being a medium for community events and discussion, and establishing a solid business model – remain the same. The tradition continues.

Note: Some of the information and quotes for this story were taken from an upcoming book, “The Ballantines: Building Community Issue By Issue,” scheduled for release this fall.

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