I learned this week about the passing of a remarkable man. Bill Collins died recently in a car accident at the age of 87.
Bill was a popular former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. In his hometown, tributes have poured in celebrating Bill’s legacy of revitalizing the city’s downtown, professionalizing its civil service, and championing affordable housing over his four terms in office.
But I got to know Bill because of the remarkable work he did after retiring from public service.
An aspiring journalist, Bill had lots of ideas — far too many for the odd assignment or op-ed. Instead, Bill enlisted foundations, public interest groups, well-known populist columnists like Jim Hightower and the late Donald Kaul, and small newspapers across the country to build a nonprofit opinion syndicate entirely from scratch.
Calling his project “Minuteman Media” after the pro-democracy partisans who launched the American Revolution, Bill anticipated some of the most dire threats to democracy in the U.S. today.
Even two decades ago, Bill saw how cost-cutting and contraction were making it harder for America’s hometown papers to cover all the issues that mattered to their readers. He saw how mediocre partisan sludge was poisoning political commentary. And he saw the horrid polarization that would follow if this bile filled the void left by community newspapers.
Over the years, BIll worked to head off that crisis by distributing thousands of free, high-quality opinion pieces — and his own weekly column — covering progressive perspectives and a wide variety of public interest causes. The network Bill launched reached deep into red and purple parts of the country, ensuring a lively exchange of ideas in a polarizing climate — and offering a valuable free resource to the cash-strapped local papers that are so vital for democracy.
Eventually, Bill handed the project over to the Institute for Policy Studies, which rebranded it “OtherWords” in 2009. He wanted to free up his time to travel, which he did with abandon. After spending his youth hitchhiking across the African continent, he spent his retirement criss-crossing dozens of countries — and taking long drives across North America, including a road trip to Alaska.
All the while, he kept churning out his weekly column, which I eventually got to edit.
It was remarkable — he’d file six or eight at a time. In any given batch, he’d write passionately about the need for a living wage, more affordable housing, and stronger labor protections. He’d expound on the need to protect the vote, expand civil rights, and end the war on drugs.
And again and again, as an Army veteran and a board member of Veterans for Peace, Bill would call to end our wars, take care of our veterans, and expose the ruthless profiteering of the military-industrial complex.
Then he’d head off for heaven knows where.
As the years went by, Bill traveled more and wrote less. But he’d still surface now again with a column — or some gruff advice. When I took over as the chief editor of OtherWords in 2016, he sent me his first note in probably two years: “JUST SAW YOUR HEADSHOT. COMB YOUR HAIR AND PUT ON A TIE.”
In his last column, published in 2019, Bill — then 84 or so — wrote about joining a peace delegation to Iran. He marveled at the warmth of ordinary Iranians and condemned what he called “our stupid sanctions” that “are hurting average people rather than their leaders” and making the United States look “like a jerk.”
Bill was a worldlier man than I’ll ever be, but it was that blunt, small-town decency that made him great.
It’s been the honor of my professional life to shepherd the syndication project he founded, which today makes thousands of op-ed placements each year. Our work appears in publications that regularly reach over 10 million print readers and upwards of 100 million digital readers — a great many of them in the small and medium-sized papers that still dot America’s heartland, just like Bill imagined.
Bill was a small-city mayor who traveled the world. An Army veteran who hated war. A fierce progressive who wrote tirelessly for conservatives. But whatever other title he held, Bill Collins filled the highest office in any democracy: the citizen. Rest in peace, Bill.