DOWNIEVILLE -- There are a number of reasons why you probably haven't heard of Don Russell, who may well be the greatest, grumpiest, funniest, most provocative and profane small-town editor in the English-speaking world.
For one, he lives and works in this mountain town of 300 people two hours or more from Sacramento, depending on when and where you get stuck behind a logging truck trudging along the twists and turns and rolling hills of Highway 49.
He runs the Mountain Messenger, the state's oldest weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 2,400. On occasions like April Fool's Day, he will rename it the Mountain Massacre or the Weekly Mountain Mess and run things like a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe on the front page.
He once used the B-word in an obituary about a female friend who died of cancer, the F-word when he told a local minister to his face why the paper wasn't going to print his sermon, and SOB seems to apply to almost everyone, sooner or later.
Nine years ago, when the Sheriff's Department arrested the town drunk, Russell fashioned a one-word headline, "Chickensh-t," then set off on an overnight motorcycle trip with his good pal -- the sheriff.
A registered Republican, he refers to President Bush as a fascist and recently wrote that the Pledge of Allegiance is "peculiar, offensive and un-American."
He doesn't like being told what to do, how to think or what should or shouldn't be in his blankety-blank newspaper. That outlook seems to play well in Sierra County, where folks embrace Russell's independent spirit.
"Gold Country has always been full of wonderful eccentrics," Russell said. "Everybody who came here either got rich or lost everything and left, leaving only the nut jobs."
If more than a handful of people outside this wooded and rugged and largely forgotten former gold-mining town had ever heard of the 57-year-old, shaggy-haired Russell, his antics and exploits would be legendary by now. There would be books about him. Visitors would come to town simply to pay homage.
Instead, he continues to work largely in obscurity, admired and/or detested by the same hundred or so people he sees practically every day. Since taking control of the newspaper in 1991, this former commercial fisherman has written and edited articles, sold ads and delivered the newspaper with a staff of one or two helpers, and has never made more than $18,000 a year.
It's a predicament that frustrates his friends and fans.
"I would like him to be more successful financially," said Michael Miller, president of the nearby Sixteen to One gold mine. "His talents far exceed where he is, but I believe with a little bit of nudging, we can get him into a broader readership."
Russell doesn't make a particularly good first impression. During a recent visit, he was spotted at a meeting of the Sierra County Board of Supervisors, hunched over the tiny media table. He occasionally hammered out notes on a 20-year-old word processor.
He was dressed in khakis and a plaid short-sleeve shirt, the breast pocket of which was stuffed with a pack of cigarettes, his checkbook, eyeglasses and at least two pens. He has a goatee that is mostly gray and in need of a trim, and his shaggy, dark head of hair suggests he is unconcerned about style.
Appearances aside, Russell has carved out a reputation by raising hell and telling the truth and having a blast. His cult following is growing at a trickle. There are 1,100 subscribers, including readers in 35 states, all eager to see what this poet and provocateur will write next.
"The guy is just honest beyond belief. I would trust him in any context," said Sheriff Lee Adams III, who will soon retire. "He really does care about the human condition. … He's sort of today's version of a Mark Twain."
When the meeting adjourned, Russell stepped outside the county building and lit an unfiltered cigarette 10 feet from a sign that forbids smoking within 20 feet of the building. Then he drove a block by motorcycle to his office, the cigarette hanging from his mouth.
Friends say he has a fatalist's attitude about his health, stemming from the death of his father from Lou Gehrig's disease when Russell was a child.
He has a large belly and says it's gotten to the point where even he is appalled. Still, he ordered sloppy Joes and french fries for lunch and washed it down with two cups of coffee. By midafternoon, back at his house -- about 500 yards from his office -- he had downed a couple of glasses of Bass Ale out of a keg.
Asked about his health, he shrugged and said, "I'm going to get sick and die."
Russell wound up running a tiny newspaper for the same reason a lot of small-town editors do -- he couldn't or wouldn't fit in anywhere else. Downieville is where he found his calling and where his prose grew wings.
Born and raised in Detroit, Russell graduated from high school in the late 1960s just as Detroit was embroiled in a race war that would send middle-class whites fleeing to the suburbs. One of his first political acts was to refuse to be inducted into the military. Prepared to go to prison, he instead agreed to take the physical and flunked. "There was always blood and sugar in my urine," he said. "It was abnormal."
He did a stint in the Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA), then set off with friends for Alaska in 1970. He made it as far as Puget Sound, where he landed a job on a fishing boat. He eventually got his own commercial fishing boat and "realized I was a lousy fisherman."
Life as a fisherman lasted 17 years. In that time, he continued writing, publishing freelance articles in the Detroit News and various magazines. With $15,000 in the bank, he got out of the fishing business and moved to Nevada County in 1986 and took up with Irene Frazier, an English teacher at Nevada Union High School. His efforts to sell TV scripts were "spectacularly unsuccessful."
"There was lots of work around. I would pound nails and twist branches and I worked on cars," he said.
In 1990, he moved to Downieville and the following year became co-owner of the unheralded Mountain Messenger.
"I never dreamed of being a great writer. I just figure that making a living at a typewriter is better than working," he said.
Some of his readers believe he approaches greatness in his writing. His voice is his own and he is consistent in his dislikes -- overarching government, bullying, bad manners, stupidity, laziness, waste. It's the same kind of thing he would say to your face over a beer in his backyard.
His coverage of the 2002 elections, for instance, was like no other newspaper's: "The really boring thief with no platform beyond swapping the state's largess for his own fattened wallet was elected governor. … Close on his heels was another really boring guy with no aptitude for leadership."
Both of those men are now out of politics.
Russell suggested this subtitle for the 2006 grand jury report: "How we'd run the county government if it was us instead of the idiots actually elected to do it."
Though Sheriff Adams admires Russell and usually agrees with him, he says the editor can be consistent to a fault. "His weakness to me -- and he drives me crazy -- government is always wrong and the individual always gets the break," Adams said.
Frazier, his longtime girlfriend, said: "When he slams you in the paper, it's a nudge that maybe you ought to think about something. He won't put anything in the paper that he won't say to your face."
Over the years, Frazier has tried to nudge Russell about his health (dragging him out for walks) and the clunkers he works on in the driveway ("he's just not very neat"), and they've squared off a time or two about whether the place in which Russell stores his keg is his beer room or her garden room. The relationship, they agree, benefits by living apart during the week and seeing each other mostly on weekends.
"After 20 years, I've come to terms with it," Frazier said. Russell has been practicing his journalism that way since he came to town, spouting off and engaging his readers with each weekly edition. He doesn't plan on stopping, going anywhere, altering his diet or toning down the language, in print or face to face.
After all these years he still reacts the same way when he publishes a particularly fine example of weekly journalism.
"I'll go get drunk," he said, reaching into his shirt pocket for a cigarette.
By Blair Anthony Robertson
-- Bee Staff Writer