THE sad death at the age of 79 of former Bolton Evening News editor Leslie Gent marks not the just the end of a print era, but the passing of a journalist of the old school.
Les, as he was known to all, was the archetypal journalist. He started his career as a 17-year-old cub reporter in 1955 and left in 1987 after spending nearly eight years in the editor’s chair.
The lad from Adlington was interviewed by the then editor, the legendary Frank Singleton, who obviously saw something special in him. He took Les on to learn the job from the ground up because there were no university courses then.
Les learned from life, and the daily routine of a reporter’s job tackling stories around everything from crime to council meetings and golden weddings to pools’ winners.
Tillotsons Newspapers, as they were then, included the Lancashire Journal Series as well as the Bolton Evening News. The Journals were where young reporters learned the job before they could “graduate” to the daily title which many did.
Les worked on Farnworth and Worsley Journal, Horwich and Westhoughton Journal and the Bolton Journal. He had to make contacts in the local communities and learn the basic journalist’s lessons of listening to what people had to say and then accurately reporting them and the facts.
This grounding proved not only invaluable to young Les but taught him a lesson in dealing with people that stood him in excellent stead throughout his journalistic career.
By having his own work pulled to pieces by sub-editors intent on getting well-written and “clean” copy (articles) ready for the paper, he honed his writing skills and, ironically, learned what sub-editors wanted. Later, he became a talented sub-editor himself on his way to the top.
He took his official journalist’s exams in law, shorthand and local government, embarking on a fascinating career that finally led him to the position of editor in 1979.
Les also heralded a new era of editorship at the Bolton Evening News. Previously, editors were generally admired but inaccessible individuals. The idea of a young reporter addressing them by their first name was unheard of.
Les was different. Having gone through every type of journalistic job in newspapers, he not only understood the production of the paper but recognised the importance of being an accessible boss to his staff.
As former Bolton Evening News’ theatre critic Doreen Crowther recalled: “When I first joined the paper, Les told me that if ever I needed to talk to him, his door was always open. He was always available to people like that.
“If you worked on a difficult story and did a particularly good job, Les would send you a note of thanks. It actually meant a great deal to us.”
This accessibility extended to readers. Les saw himself as very much a “man of the people”. He was not above coming down to the busy main reception in Mealhouse Lane to talk to a reader who had asked to speak to him.
While he kept to strict journalistic principles, he always listened to everyone’s arguments and tried to offer a fair solution. Few went away cursing; many went away after shaking his hand and genuinely thanking him for his time.
He took the role of editor very seriously, recognising that local people looked to him with respect. So, he attended numerous events in an official capacity – from council dinners and Rotary club meetings to dog shows and school fairs.
Wherever he went, people called him by his first name and bent his ear about some perceived local problem or possible story. He was unfailingly polite, always interested and dealt with everyone in the same even-handed manner.
Privately, he loved to laugh. He wasn’t frightened of people laughing at him either. He had a lengthy career on the amateur stage and found his niche in panto. This always led to good-natured ribbing from his staff, which he took with equanimity, laughing with us.
As well as overseeing major changes in newspaper production and the move from typewriters to computers – culminating in the newspaper’s move from Mealhouse Lane to Churchgate House – Les always strove to maintain newspaper standards.
He had a strong moral streak and saw his role as protector of the lengthy and respected reputation of the Bolton Evening News. He took his role – and the way we did our jobs – very seriously and wouldn’t hesitate to take individuals to task.
These rare times apart, though, Les could be relied upon to be very straightforward. He listened to other people’s views and could be influenced by them but if his instincts and experience told him something, then he stuck to it. Nor would he shy away from running a controversial story.
He genuinely cared about Bolton and its people and loved the area’s history. He had an idea about creating a column on local nostalgia and who better to do it than Les himself?
His natural ability to get on with people from all walks of life, his love of local history and family stories and his own genuine humanity helped him make Looking Back an enduring success.
He wrote the column for 20 years and managed to retain the same fresh enthusiasm he brought to the very first page. The readers immediately took to Looking Back, its pleasurable memories, personal stories and photos from so many long-gone occasions and places.
No-one but Les could have started this emotional template, this collection of local lives and glimpses back in time. He knew that people loved nostalgia, and he wallowed in it with them.
Les touched the lives of thousands and made friends in the same numbers. I don’t think I ever heard him lose his temper, or anyone say a bad word about him. He always had positive words of encouragement.
He was a caring man to whom fate gave the opportunity to make a difference. And he did. He was a Gent by name and a gent by nature.