How It Began: As a Way to Learn Journalism
The Tico Times began after a group of Lincoln School seniors approached veteran U.S. newswoman Elisabeth (Betty) Dyer and asked her to teach them something about journalism. She told them,
“The best way to learn about journalism is to put out a paper.” So on May 18, 1956, The Tico Times was born.
The newsstand price was ¢1, and would remain the same until the ‘80s. The first staffers were Isabel Moncy, Eleanor Hamer, Sidney Newcomb, Kenneth McCormack, James Cook and Gretchen Horn. The first advertisers included Schmidt’s Bakery (which was to become the longest-running advertiser in the history of the paper), the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, La Gran Vía grocery store, La Casa Dinamarca gift shop, Holtermann & Pechtel paint distributors, Chez Marcel restaurant and Pan American World Airways, which boasted “Fastest service to Miami” in its DC-6 planes.
The first edition of the all-volunteer, nonprofit effort was only 8 pages, but it had stories about plans to turn Costa Rica into an oil exporter and the Mediterranean Fruit Fly threatening local crops, congratulatory statements from the U.S. and British envoys, community news, sports and photos.
Printed on letterpress at Imprenta Borrasé, The Tico Times was eagerly welcomed by the expat community, at that time composed mostly of pioneer settlers, diplomats and employees of the Compañía Bananera (United Fruit Co.) and subsidiaries of foreign oil companies and airlines.
It Was a Hit
Within a month, the paper was up to 12 pages and had increased its volunteer staff by two talented community members, Shirley Harris (who was a TT mainstay until her death in 2002) and Florence Lloyd.
“Your overwhelming acceptance of THE TICO TIMES is the most encouraging thing that ever happened to a new paper,” reads the Editorial on June 15, 1956. “Frankly, we are awed by the number of unsolicited subscriptions we are receiving.
“We should like to reciprocate by publishing a bigger paper with more news, more pictures and more features. And we can do it with your cooperation.
“Since we do not have a large enough staff to cover news and also solicit advertising, you, our readers, can help by patronizing our advertisers and, especially, by telling them that you are interested in reading their advertisements. Considering that, as a brand-new enterprise we are something like a talking dog, they have been most generous and cooperative.
“Meanwhile, we’ve acquired a new office. It’s in the new Costa Rica Press Club building, 25 varas east of the National Theater. What’s more, we have our own Apartado. It’s No. 4632. Just the place for subscriptions, classified ads, suggestions, criticisms and contributions.
“It’s always ‘open house’ in the office. Drop in and see us.
“We’ll even be happy to put you to work.”
Off and Running
The community responded enthusiastically, and the TT was off and running. Rex Benson, a retired U.S. Navy man, writer and naturalist, joined the staff, spinning colorful yarns in his popular column,“ Of Tropic Trails and Jungle Tales” under his magazine pen name of Ben Burnett and writing human interest stories. Also known as the “Old Timer” and the “Trail Hitter,” Ben also helped The Tico Times become the first newspaper in Costa Rica – and one of the few in the world – to call attention to the environment, writing about the rainforest and endangered sea turtles years before such topics became popular. Another early environmentalist was plant expert Harry Haines, who wrote a long-running column on local flora.
During its first year, The Tico Times covered the construction of El Coco International Airport (later to be re-named Juan Santamaría); the demolition of the old Casa Presidencial, built between 1815 and 1825, near San Jose’s Central Park; and the arrival of Costa Rica’s millionth citizen, Elver Núñez Artavia.
A new law protecting the local shoe industry sparked panic among expats and tourists when it was announced that foreign-made shoes would be confiscated by
Customs. The Tourism Institute later clarified that “Tourists can bring as many pairs of shoes into Costa Rica as they like.” Added the TT: “At the present time about 1500 tourists a month enter Costa Rica. Principally they are from the U.S.A. and the Canal Zone, though Nicaraguans are frequent visitors and there are a steady few from Curacao.”
Another story, titled “TV May Be Here Soon,” reported that “a government station here plans to start two hours of evening telecasts sometime this year”, and an ad for La Gran Vía on the same page assured readers that “You Don’t Need Television… To Enjoy Our Frozen TV DINNERS!”
Community news was a vital part of the TT since the beginning. In 1956 The Little Theatre Group, the Women’s Club of Costa Rica and the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center (“Centro Cultural”) were well covered, along with the American Bowling League. That year too, Great Britain’s Legation in Costa Rica was upgraded to Embassy.
By the end of the first year, The Tico Times was running 16 pages. A box on Page 1 of the last edition of the year said:
The Linotype shop will be closed
The Print shop will be closed
The editors need a vacation.”
A Community Paper In the World
Because world news in English was hard to come by here in the ’50s, the TT tried to help fill the gap by reprinting small funny news items collected from foreign papers and magazines, as well as enlisting the help of old newspaper friends in other countries. They were delighted to oblige, and The Tico Times ran periodic dispatches from, among many others, New York Times Latin America correspondent Paul Kennedy, George Chaplin, editor of The New Orleans Item, and New York Latin America expert Sally Sheppard.
Richard Dyer wrote an unsigned weekly column,“Latin American Roundup”, on political developments in the hemisphere, and also contributed regular reports on U.S. sports, gleaned mostly from Armed Forces Radio. Columns such as “Strictly Feminine,” which covered fashion trends in the Big World, were also popular.
Other well-read columns and features included “Lady Talk”, which offered recipes and entertainment tips in English and Spanish, “Your Child’s Health,” by local pediatrician Miguel Ortiz, and a column on cars by auto enthusiasts Gerry Waller of Union Oil Co. and Al Wallace of the U.S. Embassy.
Their column led to a hilarious dispute over the relative merits of the Hillman Minx and the Volkswagen Beetle which dominated the headlines and “Letters” column for several weeks, culminating in a challenge by the local VW rep, Roderick Naumann, to a race to the top of Irazú Volcano, “Winner to take both cars, ¢10,000 in cash and five cases of Scotch.” To the disappointment of all, the challenge was turned down by Hillman-Minx rep Clem Lacle, who said the Minx was “not a racing car, but a comfortable family car.”
Travelogues were popular TT fare, and the paper ran frequent reports from travelers on the latest conditions on the still-unfinished Pan American Highway (known today as the Inter-American Highway). The best-read and longest-running travel story was “Two Wheels and a Shoestring,” a two-year account by U.S. bicyclists Inez and Freddy Boler of their adventures biking from California to Tierra del Fuego.
In 1960, The Tico Times explored “the vibrant new world that has opened up in the mountains of southern Costa Rica during the last decade… now reachable by ordinary land transportation from San José for the first time in history.” The story noted that south of San Isidro de El General, 39 rivers still needed to be forded – some by raft.
Pioneers, Vanishing Oaks And Culture Shock
In 1957, The Tico Times interviewed some of the 65 Hungarian refugees who had fled their country following the aborted uprising there. The paper also ran a series on the U.S. Quaker pioneers who were seeking peace in the cloud forests ofMonteverde and a story on homesteaders Darrell and Maria Cole, living in the jungle of Southern Costa Rica.
It also reported that “The famous steam engines of the Northern Railway, which have huffed for half a century on the rough haul up from (the Atlantic port city) Limón to San Jose, are scheduled to disappear within a month, victims of the less glamorous but more practical diesels.” And it urged readers to visit the giant oaks “that compare in stature to the Redwoods…four, five, six, seven and eight feet in diameter, towering into the heavens” in the cloud forests south of the old capital, Cartago, “now or never… because they are being wasted, destroyed, burned up” for charcoal.
Health concerns covered in the ’50s included polio, rabies and “gastro,” a dysentery disease responsible for the deaths of many children.
A series on culture shock by Brazilian anthropologist Dr. Kalervo Oberg introduced the then-novel concept to many foreigners suffering from it.
Costa Rican officials protested a story that appeared in the U.S. magazine “Male”, purportedly describing the harrowing experiences of a Pan American Highway construction crew in the Costa Rican jungles. The article described “screaming howling” Indian tribes who attacked the crew, which then retaliated, invading a village of 400 natives and killing the chief and a large number of tribesmen. “Both Costa Rican authorities and Inter-American Highway officials declared that the account was fictitious,” the TT reported, adding that the photo accompanying the story had been taken in South Africa.
A Happy Bus, a Subliminal Photo and Sputnik
The Tico Times ran its first interview with “Cazadora”, Costa Rica’s best-loved bus. The human vehicle, whose real name was Cristobal Garro, was famous throughout Costa Rica for making the round trip between San José and Cartago – 44 kilometers – on bare feet every day, “except when it is laid up for repairs or makes a charter trip to Irazú.”
Equipped with license plate, tail light, rearview mirror, ashtray, horn and gear shift, Cazadora plied the highways with unfailing cheer, always ready to aid a fellow vehicle in distress. (The TT revisited the happy bus twice more, once in the ’70s and once in the ‘90s, a few months before his death, and found him paunchier but still smiling and planning to expand his service.)
On Sept. 27, 1957, The Tico Times became the first newspaper in Costa Rica and very likely the world to publish a “subliminal photograph” on its front page, asking readers what they saw in it. And radio enthusiast Ted Westlake wrote a personal report on tuning in to the “beeps” from Sputnik as the world’s first space satellite passed over Costa Rica.
A Paper with Heart
From the very beginning, the TT found it impossible to resist the chance to publicize worthy causes. Stories urged readers to lend a hand to a variety of programs, including the “March of Homes”, an initiative by local businessmen to provide decent homes for families living in shacks; a drive to supply toys and visitors for poor children stricken by polio who were languishing in local hospitals; and a campaign to build a playground for the children of parents suffering from leprosy. As they have ever since, readers came through with generous help.
How It Began Again
The Tico Times suspended publication in March, 1960 when the Dyer family moved to Santiago, Chile, where Dick had taken a two-year job as public relations director for Braden Copper Co., a subsidiary of the U.S. copper giant Kennecott. When they returned to Costa Rica, Dick realized a lifelong dream of founding his own print shop, building Artes Gráficas de Centroamérica into a thriving operation that imported the country’s first web offset newspaper press. The plan was to resume publication of The Tico Times, but Betty’s health didn’t permit it.
Following Betty’s death in 1971 and daughter Dery’s return to Costa Rica after graduating from college in the U.S., The Tico Times finally was reborn on Feb. 4, 1972 . This time it hoped to become a profit-making enterprise (although it took years for this dream to come true). But it was essentially the same Tico Times, with many of its original collaborators, some of its original advertisers and many of its original loyal readers. Even its Apartado was the same.
And once again, it was a hit.
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