On Jan. 9, former Waldo County Sheriff John Ford gave longtime Waldo County newspaper reporter Walter Griffin a painting of an owl in a tree. The transaction took place at Darby’s restaurant in front of 30 of Griffin’s friends and colleagues who had gathered to celebrate his retirement from after 33 years with the Bangor Daily News.

Twenty-seven of those years Griffin spent working out of the Belfast bureau, located above Alexia’s Pizza, one block from Darby’s.

In one corner of the restaurant, several photos of Griffin in different stages of his career were accompanied by clever captions. An mid-career painting of an upstanding-looking, Griffin carried a caption saying something to the effect of “yes, he actually owns a tie.” Another, of a mustachioed Griffin simply read, “The Vonnegut Years.”

Ford is a wildlife artist, but the painting wasn’t his work. The artist, he revealed to gasps from many of the attendees, was multiple murderer Joel Fuller, who had mailed the painting to Griffin in care of Ford from a federal prison in Pennsylvania.

Moments earlier, Ford had asked Griffin for the most memorable story he had covered over the years. After a brief pause, Griffin responded that it was the drug-related murders in the mid-1980s, of which Fuller was ultimately convicted.

If the exchange was scripted, it was not obvious. Talking later about his three decades of covering Waldo County, many of the most memorable stories Griffin recounted involved crimes.

His last story, filed on Thursday evening, Jan. 7, marked the conclusion of one of the more notable ones, perhaps in decades — the sentencing of Amber Cummings for the 2008 killing of her husband, James Cummings. Cummings was handed a suspended sentence before a mobbed courthouse of supporters. It was the largest turnout that Griffin had seen in his years of covering the lonely grind of the justice system.

A rash of damning evidence against James Cummings was revealed during the court session, but an article written by Griffin in February 2009 arguably tipped the balance of public opinion.

In the months after Cummings was killed, Griffin performed periodic Internet searches of both the husband and wife’s names. During one such search, he came across what appeared to be a leaked FBI document that indicated materials to make a dirty bomb — a bomb containing radioactive material — had been recovered from the home of James Cummings.

The report also linked Cummings to white supremacist groups. Griffin found the document through a site called unattributable.com. He rolled his eyes, recalling the moment, “I called Bangor and said, ‘Do we print gossip, because I’ve got a great story if we do.'”

The document turned out to be real, but the first article ran with qualifications that accompany an unconfirmed document.

Whether the Cummings case swells or wanes with the passing of time remains to be seen. For Griffin, the biggest story in Waldo County over the last three decades was not a breaking headline. Instead, it was downtown Belfast’s rapid transformation in the years between the departure of the poultry plants and shoe factories and the early, flush years following the arrival of MBNA.

Griffin started reporting for the Bangor Daily News in 1977, working as a stringer out of the paper’s Rockland office, since closed, while doing double duty as economic development director for Rockland. It wasn’t his first newspaper job. He had worked as a pressman, and in his youth, as a paperboy.

In 1982 he was tapped to cover Waldo County. Shortly after his arrival, the Belfast City Council fired then-City Manager Fred Breslin. The “Young Turks,” as the three-member Council majority were known, wanted Breslin to be proactive about revitalizing the downtown, but not everyone agreed.

It was Griffin’s first big story in Belfast. But in his report of a heated public hearing at the Crosby School, he mistakenly called the venue the “Carver School,” interposing the last name of then-City Attorney John Carver, to whom Griffin gave the surname Crosby.

“So that was my first mistake,” he said.

The second came shortly after, and by his account was sufficient to snap him into shape. To replace Breslin, the Council appointed Herb Sonthoff as a temporary city manager. Griffin inexplicably called him “Fonthoff,” prompting a satirical letter to the editor in which the reporter was referred to as “Walter Grissin.”

In better times, the BDN had three full-time reporters and a handful of stringers covering Knox and Waldo counties.

“But that was back in the ’80s when we were selling 80,000 papers a day,” Griffin said.

Today that figure is closer to 60,000 and the BDN has one full-time reporter per county, each of whom covers other beats around the state in addition to reporting the local news.

During some years, Griffin was up against as many as a half-dozen reporters from the local weeklies, and he always viewed them as his competition, holding his own more often than not.

“My goal was to make sure I had as much in the papers Wednesday morning as I knew would be in [the weeklies] when they came out on Wednesday night,” he said.

Griffin would dictate his stories over the phone to someone in Bangor, sending the film from his camera by bus. Later, the Rockland bureau had a Teletype machine, which sent the story through the phone lines by way of a perforated paper tape. Despite, or maybe because of the more arduous process, Griffin said there was more of a dialogue between the reporters and editors than exists today.

When computers first arrived on the scene, he recalled, floppy disks would jam and static electricity would erase them. The computers would periodically freeze and need to be rebooted, sending the frustrated reporter back to the top. But Griffin said it didn’t take long to warm to the convenience of filing a story electronically, or the benefits of the automatic spell-check.

At one time, there were five editions of the BDN; today there are three. Griffin’s stories were typically slated for the second edition. Unless it was an election night, his copy deadline was 10 p.m. Reporting on a City Council meeting meant leaving the meeting at 9 p.m. and knocking out the story at a rate of something like 15 column inches in 15 minutes.

“I’d be in the meeting trying to think what I was going to write,” he said.

Despite the difficulties newspapers have had in recent years – the BDN had major layoffs in 2000 and 2006 – Griffin expressed confidence that the Belfast bureau would remain open in the coming years.

“I think there will always be newspapers; as long as they focus on local news, they’ll always have readership,” he said.

On the future of newspapers, one that will probably involve logging reports across multiple platforms, he said, “I’m going to leave that to the younger generation. For me, the computer is more or less a typewriter still.”

Griffin said he doesn’t have any immediate plans for his retirement, though he is looking into working for the Census Bureau. About his young replacement, Abigail Curtis, he said, “I think Abby will do a good job. I think she’s aggressive and she’s really into it.”

In 1989, the Waldo Independent published an interview with Griffin under the headline, “The BDN’s Walter Griffin casts a wry eye on the news.” In the accompanying photo, Griffin, with mustache and thick black curls (see “The Vonnegut Years”) looked very much the part.

In the article, Griffin lamented that revealing quotes from local politicians he included in articles were often struck by litigation-shy editors. These edits, he felt, came at the expense of the “flavor” and “spice” of the story. The article mentioned a planning board meeting but no specific examples.

Looking at a faded copy of the paper from the Independent’s archives, the retired reporter chuckled to himself. “There was a guy who used to say, ‘There’s a nigger in the woodpile,’ sometimes. It would never make it in the paper and he’d keep saying it.”

Griffin took a breath, flashed a hint of a wry smile, and looked slightly subdued. “Get it in there once, it would have shut the guy up for good,” he said.

Happy retirement, Walter.