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Nuestra Historia - Kistler was ubiquitous provocateur

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Russ Kistler was not entirely preoccupied with race issues and division, and his Optic reported in earnest on virtually every local activity, though mostly about East Las Vegas.

The omnipresent coverage of Kistler’s Optic was best described by renowned Las Vegas historian Lynn Perrigo (known to have spent weeks at a time poring over old issues of the Optic), who wrote in amazement: “It hardly seems possible, but Kistler and his assistant must have been present at nearly every meeting and event on the east side and some in Old Town, because they wrote first-hand news reports and often editorial comments about political rallies, school programs, church services, sporting activities, theatricals, lodge functions, social events, and community celebrations, and met all the trains in order to garner personal items.”

Kistler’s insatiable appetite for news and his exhaustive coverage were no doubt motivated by competition from the Las Vegas Gazette, which had been around since 1872. Kistler and Gazette publisher and editor J. H. Koogler became ardent foes from the start, and routinely taunted each other with sharp, personal and nasty editorials, as will be related later. (At least one other newspaper, the New Mexico Herald, was also published in Las Vegas when Kistler first arrived.)

Kistler and Koogler also competed fiercely for advertising, the Gazette patronized by mostly Old Town merchants, while most of Kistler’s advertisers were on the east side. Even in early issues, however, the Optic had as many as 40 advertisers, including many small businesses, physicians and attorneys. (When he first started the Optic, Kistler complained bitterly that Old Town merchants “are not treating us fairly.”)    
Kistler’s Optic began as a weekly newspaper, first published on July 30, 1879. Within three months, he expanded to a daily (except Sundays) and published the first Las Vegas Daily Optic on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 1879. Soon Kistler engaged correspondents in other towns, and with some regularity, the Optic published news items from Santa Fe, Socorro, Springer, Trinidad, and other localities. (The Optic existed well before the newspaper wire services of the early 20th century, and before the advent of wide circulation by any Albuquerque or Santa Fe newspapers.)

Kistler’s choice of “Optic” as the name of his newspaper was no doubt intended to signify both his aggressive reporting and audacious editorials — an implied warning that nothing and no one would escape his vigilant eye.

In his recent (2007) book, “How Newspapers Get Their Names,” word sleuth Jim Bernhard writes that in the late 19th century, “optic” (from the Greek optikos, pertaining to sight), was used as a noun meaning “eye,” and that Kistler intended that usage when he named his newspaper, with a policy of providing “vivid eyewitness accounts” in his coverage. (Kistler had a definite affinity for the word, and his prior newspaper was the Otero Optic, which he published before arriving in Las Vegas.)

Kistler founded the Las Vegas Optic when he was only 26, and before he was 30, it was a thriving newspaper. The young editor promoted his paper ardently, and even traveled outside the territory to advance the Optic, as reported in the following 1882 story in The Advertiser, a newspaper in Trinidad, Colo.: “Russ Kistler of the Las Vegas Optic was in the city yesterday and called at the Advertiser’s parlors for a few minutes. Kistler is one of the most brilliant writers in the newspaper business in the west, and is more widely known than any other man in New Mexico journalism.”

The coverage provided by Kistler’s Optic was both pervasive and provocative, and Kistler did not hesitate to opine on any social and political issue of the day. Though his partisan sympathies wavered, he was usually supportive of Republican politicians, and even offered prescient wisdom from time to time. For example, decades before the practice became common-place, Kistler foresaw the logic of non-partisan municipal elections, writing in an editorial on Sept. 15, 1880: “What earthly connection can there possibly be between keeping the streets clean and the difference between the two great political parties of the day?”

Nor was Kistler without humor, albeit provocative. In one issue, his Optic objected to the tight lacing of women’s clothing, because “men dread the thought of marrying a woman who is subject to fits of irritable temper, to bad headaches, and other ailments caused by the compression of the waist.” Another time, Kistler wrote that the school board was looking for a “western female teacher, blonde preferred,” who could recite the “Lord’s prayer in Spanish with one hand tied behind her.”

It was the infamous western outlaws of the day, however, who most dominated the Optic’s pages in the early years. Many of them took up residence in Las Vegas, and it was Russ Kistler who helped make them legendary, even claiming to have Billy the Kid’s trigger finger preserved in a jar at the Optic!

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.