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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Judson Hale


(From The Weekly Press, Decmber 2009)

I’m sitting with Judson Hale, the 13th (but now semi-retired) editor of the Old Farmers Almanac. We are squirreled away in a back corner of Port Richmond’s Hinge Café. It’s lunch time and the place is crowded. Mr. Hale is a tall, quintessential New England Yankee—white hair, lean, angular face, a ready smile. He’s finishing up an egg breakfast sandwich when I make my arrival.

George Washington used to read the Old Farmers Almanac, so I’m sitting with the ringleader of the most famous American publication ever. The Almanac was founded in 1792. Its world famous weather predictions have over a sixty-five percent accuracy rate. Abraham Lincoln once used the Almanac, as a defense attorney, in an Illinois murder trial. The United States banned the publication for a time during World War II.

Ask many people about the Old Farmers Almanac and they’ll tell you, “What exactly is it anyway?”

“Our endeavor is to be useful but with a pleasant degree of humor,” Mr. Hale tells me, “and that has not changed.”

In a country where change has become a moral imperative, the Almanac is an oddity. “It’s also been lucky,” Mr. Hale says, who joined Yankee Publishing Inc. in 1958 as an assistant editor but who became managing editor of both the Almanac and Yankee Magazine in 1970, then Editor-in-Chief of both publications in 2000.

The Almanac has been in the Hale family since the 1930s, when Mr. Hale’s uncle, a tall man who resembled Abraham Lincoln, became the 11th editor.

“My uncle, or my mother’s brother, has always been sort of odd, so when I went there in 1958, I was meeting him for the first time. I worked with my uncle for 12 years.”

Mr. Hale calls that mentorship “a wonderful time.”

“For over 20 years the content of the Almanac has not changed radically, but if you looked at issues at the turn of the 19th century, they would be very different, more local, noting vacations of the local colleges like Dartmouth and Harvard,” he said. “Oftentimes during vacation students would come and work on the farm….Well, there are few farms anymore.”

The 1800’s era editions of the Almanac weren’t all that interesting, he adds, noting that in the last twenty years “we really put a lot of wonderful writers in it.”

“The rough translation of Almanac is a calendar of the Heavens, and a calendar is annual. It’s always been an annual. It’s the oldest continuously published periodical in North America,” he adds, emphasizing that the Almanac never gets into politics. “As far as sex and religion go, if it’s extreme, we’d steer clear of it. We can make a little fun of sex, but we can’t make fun of religion.”

The 256-page Almanac used to be a humble 65 pages in 1958. The traditional punched hole in the Almanac’s upper left hand corner is for wall display, just like any calendar. “It costs us $42,000 a year to punch this hole. One year when I recommended that we save money by not punching it, I got hundreds of letters saying ‘Don’t do it,’” Mr. Hale said.

In the past the Almanac has advertised returnable (if they don’t fit) false teeth for $100; glass eyes that do not rotate like a real pupil but which can be ordered in different colors ($50.00) Former President Jimmy Carter once advertised how to raise fish worms in the Almanac’s classified section. Pre-Viagra pills were sold as Rooster pills.

What’s big in the Almanac these days is gardening, food (recipes, etc.), astronomy, and what Mr. Hale calls “tuning into nature.”

There are, of course, the famous weather forecasts.

“The secret formula for weather forecasts has to do with sunspots. Right now we are into Sunspot cycle 24. It is very, very quiet, and there are few sunspots. Whenever it’s been quiet sunspot-wise for a long time, it’s been very cool,” he says.

So, expect a cold winter with above average snowfall in January and February 2010.

Besides the secret sunspot formula, Mr. Hale says his staff “uses the most modern, high tech information” for accurate weather forecasts.

The Almanac’s 1816 editor, Robert B. Thomas, who used sunspots to predict the weather for 1816, wrote that it would snow throughout the summer. “He became a laughing stock,” Mr. Hale said, “so he tried to get all the copies off the newsstands, destroying everything he could, and had the Almanac reprinted. He remained the laughing stock till late spring when Mt. Tabora in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) erupted one hundred times bigger than Mt. Saint Helen’s, and the dust from Mt. Tabora circled the globe causing 1816 to be “the summer of no summer.”

And it did snow in New England.

The Almanac’s astronomical/lunar forecast for November 22, 1963, the day of the John F. Kennedy assassination, stated that there would be two moons, a highly unusual occurrence and one that the writer described this way” “Night is coming on, and murder perhaps.”

“I knew the writer of that piece,” Mr. Hale recalls. “He was a literary farmer who went to Harvard. This prediction generated thousands of calls.”

In 1943, a German U-boat landed on Long Island. The boat’s operator some how made to New York’s Penn Station, where he was apprehended by the FBI. “When they searched him they found a 1943 or 1944 edition of the Almanac in his pocket,” Mr. Hale said. “They felt the Germans were using the Almanac to see what the weather would be like over here, so they banned it. The Germans were using the Almanac not for weather but they wanted to know about the tides.”

In 1857, Abraham Lincoln used the Almanac in his role as defense attorney for a man accused of killing somebody at 11:30 at night. “Lincoln was a friend of the family of the accused, the Armstrong’s, and when the prosecution produced a witness who said they saw the accused strike the victim ‘by the light of the moon,’ Lincoln turned to the Old Farmers Almanac and read, “On August 29, 1857, the moon rides low,’ meaning there wouldn’t have been enough light to see,” Mr. Hale says.

Unfortunately, Lincoln had a guilty man acquitted, for on his deathbed, the accused admitted to the murder.

Being the Editor-in-Chief of the oldest publication in America means a lot of television and radio exposure. “I used to do 3 weeks of PR all over the country, six or seven shows a day, when the new Almanac was published in June. It was exhausting and tiring. I was on the Today Show and Prime Time for years. Media has changed now. But I did 14 years of Conan O’Brien. I liked the man but a couple of times I wouldn’t do what they asked me to do. Conan had this guy dressed in a stuffed bear costume and it was the masturbating bear. I was in a skit where I was to talk about the masturbating bear, but I couldn’t say that. So I changed it, and of course it made the skit fall flat. Instead of masturbating I said, ‘masticating bear.’”

When Mr. Hale’s appearance on the Good Morning America show was cancelled because of breaking news—the death of Pope John XXIII—he was booked three months later, but that visit had to be cancelled too because the new Pope, John Paul I, had also died.

“It was strange how I was perceived as I was doing all of those things. In Portland, Oregon television I was the third guest. The first guest took off a red T-shirt and played America the Beautiful on a harmonica; the second guest was the tallest woman in the world, 7’9” tall, taller than Wilt Chamberlain. At the conclusion of the night I wondered, ‘Is there a message in that grouping? And if so, what’s the message?”

Mr. Hale is the author of “The Education of a Yankee” and “inside New England.” He lives in Dublin, New Hampshire with his wife, the former Sally Huberlie of Rochester, New York.

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