Laurence Cummins

When Lou Cummins took up the editorship of the Newbury Weekly News in 1978, a family-owned local newspaper was already a rarity. He understood the role that such a newspaper plays in the community, and was often to be seen around the town, where he would be button-holed by readers wanting to air their views. No Women's Institute or primary school was too insignificant for his appearance as an invited speaker. Such had been the role of his predecessors for over 150 years, and he regarded it as a sacred and enjoyable duty.

Many news stories seemed to demand that the newspaper take a stance (Greenham peace camps, the Newbury bypass controversy) but Lou robustly resisted all pressure, believing that impartiality was vital to the health of the paper. Editorial campaigns were rare (and, as such, usually successful). He maintained that the News was a newspaper of record, not an agent of change. Independence was sacrosanct.

Lou once wrote of himself: "Coming, as he does, from Essex, he regards the fact that he can read at all as being a great achievement", but this belied his rare affinity with language. It was by no mere chance that he sustained a lifelong friendship with his former English teacher from Chelmsford's Edward VI School. Those who operated within earshot of the editorial office were familiar with the characteristic anguished roar which denoted Lou's discovery of a linguistic solecism in copy. Misuse of the word "unique" was a particular bête-noire. His love of language included several very personal prejudices, which he did not hesitate to enshrine in the News house style. "Ms" was banned, and anyone chairing a committee was a chairman, regardless of sex or preference. Lou often appointed staff on impulse, and he never sought to hold back young reporters on an upward path, believing that nurturing talent was an important function of a local newspaper. His newsroom staff were encouraged, praised, nicknamed and bawled out in turn, according to their deserts of the moment but he was loyal, fair and never dull to work for.

Whilst upholding tradition, he also championed many changes within the News, and in local newspapers generally through the Guild of Newspaper Editors. A fellow member recalls him proudly distributing News copies at guild meetings, confident that other editors should benefit from such an outstanding example of the art. He knew he was good.

Lou's departure from the Newbury Weekly News at the age of 50 was followed by a difficult year of adjustment. All his working life had been in journalism, and at the age of 23 he had been the youngest newspaper editor in the country (on the Brentwood Gazette). In 1996, he found a new role, with the Oxfordshire Association for the Blind.

Directorship of the OAB was a culture shock and a challenge, but Lou transformed the organisation into a vigorous and prominent charity. In the early days he used his personal networks in Newbury, where a substantial reservoir of goodwill endured from his News days. A ruthless calling-in of favours ensued. Some escaped with tin-shaking in Carfax on flag day, others in business were required to make good their (perhaps half-forgotten) promises of support.

In time, he penetrated Oxfordshire society, promoting OAB through media campaigns, public speaking, and assiduous courtship of the county's movers and shakers. For a man professing contempt for sycophancy, he could be remarkably emollient if he sniffed a legacy for the charity.

At the time of Lou's arrival, OAB was reaching no more than 1,500. Eight years later, the clients numbered over 3,000. Lou was a formidable campaigner for blind people. He enjoyed stamping on the corns of intransigent and mindless bureaucracy, and his very name brought officialdom out in a cold sweat. At client level, Lou scorned the conventional culture of social work that prescribes an emotional distance — if he found someone in distress that he could alleviate by direct personal action, he did whatever was needed, on the spot. He once took a near-destitute client home for Christmas (the kind of spontaneous generosity that demanded as much of his family as it did of him).

Few would have labelled Lou a domesticated man, but he was acutely appreciative of the elegant and interesting home surroundings created by his wife Frankie. Theirs was a marriage of true symbiosis, and Frankie gave vital and vivacious support to Lou.

At home, Lou amassed a vast collection of music and books, and pursued perfection in hi-fi, television and cameras. Once a keen rugby player, he had for the last 20 years been a follower of the sport, but golf remained an obsession until illness forced him off his beloved Newbury and Crookham course earlier this year.

Lou retired officially in May 2005, but he continued to work from home as much as his declining health permitted. In March this year, he undertook a sponsored walk, completing over two miles, and raising more than £10,000.

On 17 September, Lou celebrated his 60th birthday with about 40 family and close friends. It was without doubt a farewell — few of them expected to see him again. He sat under a tree beside his koi carp pond, receiving guests in balmy autumn sunshine and, for all the sadness, it was by no means a miserable occasion. Most people, casting about for a suitable present, had bought him books. "I seem to have enough reading here," he said, "to last a lifetime." He enjoyed irony.

Penny Stokes

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