James Rensenbrink, 81, Dies; Founded Aquarian Weekly
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: November 25, 2013
When James Rensenbrink started an alternative newspaper in 1969, its mission — speaking truth to power, debunking corporate journalism, promoting rock ’n’ roll, publishing sex tips and drug advice that no mainstream newspaper would — made it like a thousand other alternative papers in that high-water-mark counterculture year.
Cathy Miller/The Aquarian Weekly
What came to distinguish Mr. Rensenbrink’s journal was staying power.
The Aquarian Weekly, headquartered in various northern New Jersey storefronts and warehouses in its 44 years, has outlived most of its underground cohort. After The Village Voice and The San Francisco Bay Guardian were taken over by corporate newspaper chains in recent years, The Aquarian claimed to be one of the last independent alternative papers in the country and one of the oldest continuously published ones.
Mr. Rensenbrink, who died on Nov. 6 in Grants Pass, Ore., at 81, received offers over the years from chains looking to buy The Aquarian, with its circulation of 45,000. He said no each time. By the time he retired in 1999 and moved to Oregon, he had arranged to transfer ownership to an employee cooperative. The co-op has been publishing the paper — in print and online editions — ever since.
Mr. Rensenbrink did not keep in touch after leaving, said Diane Casazza, now one of the paper’s co-publishers, but he left a lasting impression after 30 years of deadline driving, blue-pencil editing and more or less full-time living in the newspaper’s office. Staff members — most of them young and working on a newspaper for the first time — referred to him with varying degrees of affection and apprehension as “Oz the Great and Terrible.”
Mr. Rensenbrink called himself a “working hippie,” shaped by counterculture values and a blue-collar work ethic. He was, by most accounts, a tough boss.
He did not countenance missed deadlines, misspelled names, unoriginal or miscaptioned photos, dull prose or disloyalty, which for freelancers, whom he paid as little as $25 an article in the 1960s, meant being caught writing for any newspaper other than his.
He was also a mentor to dozens of staff members who went on to careers in journalism and music, including Timothy White, an editor in chief of Billboard magazine; Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles; and Rob Affuso,drummer for the ’80s metal band Skid Row.
For months at a time, former employees said, Mr. Rensenbrink worked, ate and slept in his office, a den piled high with newspapers, magazines, books, unemptied ashtrays and — somewhere in the clutter — the manuscript of the novel he was perpetually writing.
Charlie Frick, a journalist who worked for Mr. Rensenbrink off and on between 1973 and 1998, described the literary décor in a tribute on The Aquarian’s website.
“I would be ushered into his office for a meeting, a scolding, or to try and get paid, and he would have a copy of ‘Walden’ open on his desk, or Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ within easy reach,” Mr. Frick wrote. “For a few years, I saw a dog-eared and heavily annotated copy of Carlos Castaneda’s ‘The Teachings of Don Juan.’ ”
The amalgam of transcendental mind and workaholic habits helped Mr. Rensenbrink keep his newspaper afloat through changing political and cultural climates, the deaths and births of rock-music trends, and the passage of laws raising the minimum drinking age to 21 from 18, which devastated the bar scene, a major source of advertising dollars.
In the mid-’80s he renamed the paper The East Coast Rocker, expanded its music coverage, cut back on political content and laid off staff members. He still considered himself a working hippie, he told The New York Times in 1993.
“You have to bend with the wind,” he said.
James Rensenbrink was born in Pease, Minn., on Nov. 20, 1931. His parents, who owned a dairy farm, reared him in keeping with their strict Dutch Reformed Church beliefs, his daughter, Nicole, said. After his father died when he was about 13, Mr. Rensenbrink moved with his mother and younger siblings to Grand Rapids, Mich., where she bought and ran a boardinghouse.
After high school he attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids but dropped out in his senior year and settled with his young wife, Dorothy Vogel, a fellow Calvin student, in northern New Jersey, where she was from. He worked for The Paterson Evening News and other daily newspapers before starting The Aquarian Weekly in a Passaic storefront.
His two marriages ended in divorce. Besides his daughter, his survivors include a son, Scott; two grandchildren; and a brother, John, a founding member of the Green Party of the United States.
James Rensenbrink’s novel, “The Basketball Player: An Escape From the Word Cult,” which he published himself in 2002, is about a man who escapes from a society that turns humans into machines. He also published a collection of poems, “Ceremonial Fire.”
In 2012, about 1,800 issues of The Aquarian Weekly were archived at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.