Former Free Press editor and proprietor Jim Smith died on May 13, aged 89. ​

By Lauren Duffy

The life and times of Jim Smith, former owner and editor of The Free Press, are being recounted this week following the death of the long-time newspaper man.

Born in Kilmore in 1933, Leslie James ‘Jim’ Smith lived in the town his entire life, until his death on May 13.

Being born in the Great Depression, Mr Smith had recalled that life was far from easy – his family never owned a car and finances were always tight.

But he said he and sister were always clothed and loved.

Mr Smith was educated at Kilmore Primary School and Seymour High School where he gained his merit certificate with honours in English.

He left school at the aged of 14 and entered the world of newspapers as an apprentice printer in 1948 under former editor John MacDonnell. His starting wage was 25 shillings a week, which equals about $2.55 in today’s money.

Mr Smith’s apprenticeship was interrupted by six months of national service with the Royal Australia Air Force at Laverton, where he made lifelong friends.

To supplement his low wage at The Free Press he worked as a night switchboard operator at Kilmore’s manual telephone exchange. He also had another part-time job as an usher at the Astor Theatre, now Oddfellows café – it was not a paid job but allowed him free entry to the movies.

Jim Smith, right, congratulates long-time employee Greg Hanson on reaching 25 years of employment at The Free Press. Mr Hanson spent his entire working life at the newspaper, starting as an apprentice linotype operator and progressing to production manager. ​

Mr Smith worked at The Free Press until 1954, when his employer decided there was not enough business for a qualified tradesperson.

So, he worked as a salesman at a local butter factory and produce store, where he learnt a lot about business.

During this time he also met a nurse Lois who had been caring for his father in The Kilmore and District Hospital – they later married in 1959 and made their home in Kilmore, where they welcomed five children.

With retirement pending for his former boss, Mr Smith returned to The Free Press in 1968, when he and his wife Lois bought the business. Mr Smith became the fifth editor of The Free Press.

The Free Press staff in 1996 feature in their own masthead. Pictured are Bill West, Greg Hanson, Peter Smith, Dianne Holloway, Bianca Forssman, Marg Wilson, Alan McDonald, Jim Smith, Bronwyn Wheatley, Bruce Smith, Annette Fisher and Debbie Callandar. ​

His ownership of the newspaper soon saw new headlines and layout for The Kilmore Free Press, which, as editor, Mr Smith outlined in a heartfelt thanks in the February 22, 1968, edition of the newspaper.

‘To our readers, contributors of news items, and advertisers, also the clients of our commercial printing division, we thank you for your support.

‘We are very much appreciative of the valued service rendered by these local tradesmen’, and particularly thanked James Simpson for the new layout and Philip Skehan for the new masthead design.

This change was followed by a change of typefaces in 1970.

In November 1970, an advertisement appeared in The Free Press with the announcement of the typefaces due to the replacement of an early model linotype with a modern typesetting machine used to produce the newspaper: ‘We can proudly say that our new machine is the only one of its kind between Melbourne and the cities of Benalla, Shepparton and Bendigo’.

The business moved offices to 62-64 Sydney Street, Kilmore, in January 1973, and over the years underwent many renovations and extensions to cater for the changing needs of a newspaper.

In 1975, Mr Smith purchased a Goss Cox-o-Type newspaper printing press, making the printing of newspaper much quicker than the old Stonemetz machine, which was later sold to the Broadford Courier.

In a 1991 article in The Free Press, it stated Mr Smith had two choices when changing to offset printing – either to carry out the whole process on the premises, or send the paper out of town for platemaking and printing. He chose the first option, allowing the employment of many local people.

A major change occurred in 1988 when The Free Press moved from being produced from hot metal composition and letterpress printing to photo composition typesetting, and the introduction of a five-unit web offset rotary press.

Mr Smith oversaw many changes in the newspaper industry – none more so than the introduction of computers in the 1990s. His time at The Free Press saw the circulation of the paid newspaper increase significantly as it expanded into towns across the Mitchell Shire.

Under his ownership, The Free Press was at the forefront of many campaigns to improve services in the area, and won numerous industry awards.

The Free Press name stood for ‘freedom of the press’, and that was a long-held and ongoing belief of Mr Smith which he upheld – the freedom of people to express their views.

This was evidenced through the column published by Mr Smith, written under the byline of ‘Dingo Dan’ – a regular, at times controversial article, which at one stage featured on national television.

During Country Newspaper Week in 1994, The Free Press light-heartedly profiled their staff at the time, describing Mr Smith as ‘wielder of the mighty red pen when to come to editing long-winded copy or too many capital letters’.

In his early days of journalism, ‘he covered all the news events, council meeting and chook raffles, and used to send the Wallan and Pyalong papers out on the school bus and the rest by train’.

‘He’s often found working at the office seven days a week, but hasn’t quite found the time yet to tidy his original desk.’

In fact, the title for the most untidy desk was battled out between Mr Smith and senior journalist Bill West – the pair working together for more than 30 years.

When speaking to the Review last week, Mr West described his former boss as a generous man.

“Jim was a great believer in the freedom of the press,” he said.

“He was a great employer of local people and provided an important service to the community, as a publisher for many years.”

Mr Smith handed over ownership of the company, Central Highlands Newspapers, to his children in 2002, and The Free Press was sold in 2006 to Wally Mott, owner of the North Central Review.

In the last front page of The Free Press under the Smith family’s ownership, Mr Smith said:

“The newspaper and printing trade has changed completely. The district has changed as well, and The Free Press has been a part of this, recording what has happened and providing people with their own local newspaper.”

Central Highlands Newspapers was a true family affair with all family member working at the newspaper from time to time.

Away from work, Mr Smith served on the Kilmore Football Club committee, which at the time helped establish a junior team. He was also on the committee that fundraised to build a swimming pool in Kilmore.

He retired in Kilmore, enjoying many years at his family home in Church Street until moving into BlueCross Willowmeade nursing home.

Mr Smith was father to Robert, Bruce, Peter, Grace and Marguerite, as well as a cherished father-in-law, grandfather and great grandfather.

His funeral is at 10.30am on Wednesday, at Christ Church, Anglican Church, Kilmore, followed by a burial at Kilmore Public Cemetery.