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Former Maine Public bureau chief Mal Leary, 'dean of State House press corps,' dies at 72

Mal Leary

Maine Public has lost a friend and colleague. Longtime reporter and former Maine Public State House Bureau Chief Mal Leary died over the weekend. He was 72.

Mal retired nearly two years ago, and just last week he was honored with the distinguished Yankee Quill Award for his contribution to "the betterment of journalism."

Mal was known far and wide, especially in political and journalism circles, by his first name. He began his career in journalism in the 1970's at WABI TV in Bangor, and then as a reporter for the United Press International Press wire service. He would later find his way to radio, creating the Capitol News Service in 1983 and joining Maine Public Radio more than a decade later.

A.J. Higgins was a reporter for the Bangor Daily News when he first met Mal. Later, the two shared an office working together as colleagues for Maine Public, where Higgins said Mal taught him the importance of being a patient reporter.

"He would sit on a story and wait, sometimes, depending on what was going on, to make sure that things had finally jelled and what can be reported would be accurate, which is kind of a contrast to today where everyone goes with the headline," he said.

Mal's career was remarkable not only for the length of service — 45 years — but for the depth and breadth of his knowledge about Maine history, politics and the law, especially around public access and open government. He was a leader of the movement in Maine, and was named president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition in 2015.

Mal Leary (left) and Don Carrigan at a Senate debate in 1996.
Maine Public file
Mal Leary (left) and Don Carrigan at a Senate debate in 1996.

As a guest on Maine Calling, Mal reflected on the constant battle for transparency, marked by small incremental victories. He cited a measure passed under then Gov. Angus King that required any study group created by executive order be subject to the state's Freedom of Information Act.

"Gov. King at the time, now Sen. King, brought me in the office and said 'Why should I sign this? You know I'm going to make all of these open?' And I said 'Very simple, you're not going to be governor forever!' He laughed, and signed the bill. So we have made some progress over the years," Mal said.

"Mal was tough, honest and fair and he was always dedicated to informing people about what was going on," said King, who knew Mal from his two terms as governor and later when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. "When I would see on my schedule a call with Mal, I knew that I really had to do my homework because he was going to ask the most obscure questions about the budget or something. I knew that he had done his homework and I better have done mine."

Considered "the dean of the State House press corps," Mal covered multiple administrations going back to the '70s. He was able to form relationships with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, with whom he discussed issues as diverse as the legislative process, the budget and, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said, the U.S. Department of Defense.

"I learned so much from Mal. A lot of times when he would bring up a question that had to do with our Navy, I would find out that he had read all of the latest information, followed the issue so closely and it was always tempting to interview him rather than have him interview me. That's how much knowledge he had," she said.

Mal always seemed to be at the right place at the right time. And if he wasn't there in person, his microphone was. There used to be a joke that even the bathrooms at the State House were not a safe place to talk because Mal might have them wired for sound.

Gov. Janet Mills, who often stopped by his office on the first floor of the Cross Office Building, said he was always recording multiple hearings at once.

"He'd be watching some congressional hearing and he'd be watching some legislative hearing or listening to a press conference and he'd be recording things. I think he recorded every single judicial hearing in Judiciary Committee since he started covering the State House," she said.

He was tenacious, and at times surly, and had a wonderful sense of the absurd. Mills said he also wasn't afraid to tell you what he thought.

"I think people could learn a lot from him. There was no BS. He was straightforward and never tried to trick you into something," she said.

For as gruff as he sometimes seemed on the exterior, Mal was also a mentor to many up-and-coming journalists. He took his time providing political context and history. He was dedicated to the craft.

For these reasons and so many more, we're going to miss him, but remain grateful to have known him and to have worked with him for as long as we did.