Bend, Ore. — Word had come from the top. Editor Bob Chandler didn't like the misspelling that appeared in a story written by Bob Welch. Mr. Welch didn't like it, either. No one wants to cross Bob Chandler, whose feelings about spelling are just about as deeply held - and well known - as his opinions on the national debt. So the young reporter looked the word up and, armed with vindicating proof that his own spelling was right, dared to show the editor the dictionary entry.
''My heart was pounding. Going into Bob's office is a major step in itself. Many reporters never go in there,'' he says of the editor-owner of the Bulletin. A few long moments passed, and Chandler slammed the dictionary shut, growling, ''Welch, get a new dictionary.''
With the kind of respect that Robert W. Chandler commands in his news room - indeed, in this state - you might half expect that somewhere there is a dusty dictionary on his side.
The air always crackles with excitement around Mr. Chandler, and nearly every Oregonian has his favorite Chandler story to prove it.
A sort of metaphor of the West, he is a big man whose independent spirit isn't hemmed in by small-town city limits. His sphere of influence is perhaps best illustrated by a recent afternoon's interruptions: He took a call from a state Supreme Court justice seeking advice on a reelection bid and found just as much time to lend to a local hospital board member who dropped in.
He may cultivate a tough shell, but his wife, Nancy, with whom he raised six children, just laughs at the image outsiders see. Officials at Oregon colleges and his alma mater, Stanford, attest to his soft heart - they say he's one of their biggest donors for journalism scholarships.
The tentacles of his reputation stretch even to El Salvador, where he says he's known to the nation as the man who raised the price of newspapers. As a consultant there, he advised a newspaper owner that a profit could be made if the owner could convince his competitors to raise their prices, too. No antitrust laws existed to prevent it, so a collective price increase helped immortalize Chandler there.
Some of his strongest opinions are about his own business. He says the lack of editorial guts is a perennial problem with newspapers.
Bob Chandler's voice is carried in the Bulletin and the five other Oregon papers he owns.
Lodged between an old roll-top desk and a video-display terminal, he likes to snap off opinions in a quick three to five paragraphs, and doesn't like the ''on the one hand and on the other'' editorial style. ''An editorial by definition is an opinion,'' he declares, adding that he likes a vigorous repartee with readers.
Further, the editor says that because his editorials are short, they're easy to reprint in other papers. This exposure accounts for the influence people believe he has, he says.
Editorially, Chandler calls himself a conservative. But his opinions show a typically Western streak of independence:
* He supports gun control. He's held this unpopular position for 30 years in a state that not that long ago still killed one deer for every family.
* He's against the Equal Rights Amendment. The 14th Amendment refers to the rights of ''persons,'' he says. ''I go on the assumption that women are persons.''
* He supports trimming the national debt by increasing federal taxes, cutting defense spending, and reducing increases in entitlements.
* He supports raising the retirement age for social security benefits, which he suggests would save the nation money.
The Bulletin, which has grown from 5,000 circulation to 20,000 since Chandler bought it in 1953, is considered by media experts to be one of the nation's best small dailies. Chandler agrees, but not because the experts say so. ''No one reads all 1,700 papers, so who can judge?'' he asks.
Although his daughter, Janet Stevens, helps him now, Chandler for years was responsible for hacking out two or three editorials a day.
He tackles everything from the naming of swans on a local pond to international economics.
Maintaining a world view from this town of 17,000 on the eastern edge of the Cascades has been no problem for Chandler, who buzzes out of the wilderness in his private plane whenever he wants.
''I knew when I came here I wasn't gonna sit in Bend, Oregon, the rest of my life,'' he cracks. So to broaden his horizons he joined commissions - lots of commissions - on subjects like education, judicial fitness, criminal-law revision, and constitutional revision. These groups, he says, give him a chance to ''dig in and work hard for a relatively short time. I meet a lot of people with different interests and get exposed to different things.''
In the early 1970s he signed on with the International Executive Service Corps to consult Central American papers. At a San Salvador paper he spent two weeks every spring for several years - and a six-month stretch in 1973 - advising owners on everything from offset printing to reporting.
Recalling local travel in an armor-plated van, he says, ''In San Salvador it takes more courage to mention there's a gray hair in the president's mustache than it does to call for impeachment here.
''In the long run we certainly didn't save El Salvador for democracy,'' he says. But he adds that he was proud to have kept a moderate journalistic voice afloat.
For all his worldliness, Chandler remains a small-town man - he enjoys walking to work wearing his brown felt hat and down vest, answers his own phone, and is suspicious of businessmen or politicians who don't do the same.
But still, he bemoans the fact that Bend is no longer the small town he found in 1953.
Local control of business has slowly slipped away. He says that 30 years ago, 14 out of his 15 top advertisers could be found at desks in the back of their stores here. That's not true today, and he's determined to make sure that the paper stays local.
''I could have had a $500,000 dividend income today if I'd accepted a chain offer,'' he admits. But chain ownership elsewhere has meant ''the creation of a bunch of very average newspapers. If a company paid $10 million, it expects a return. The real interest is not the concerns of the founder's son, but the price of the stock,'' he says.
The role of newspapers in the community is to keep a balance among interests, he says.
''When the pendulum swings a little too far, we're a little frightened by the speed, and we (the newspaper) turn it around, slow it,'' he says. For example, he explains that he supported protecting wilderness areas in the past. But today he opposes a proposal to protect 2 million more acres of wilderness around the state. Much of the land proposed for protection, he claims, no longer qualifies as wilderness anymore, because development has encroached too closely.
Oregon, he observes, has changed, too. ''The state legislature used to spend 60 days in session. Today it spends 180, and I'm not sure the laws are any better. Before, small-town lawyers and doctors and cattle farmers could afford to serve a couple of months.'' Now politics is too complicated - it takes too much time to get a consensus, he says. Further, he observes, state government has become too liberal.
''I don't think all political wisdom rests in either the Democratic or Republican parties,'' he says.
Government is under different pressures today, because with more leisure, money, and mobility, Americans have found causes ''to jump up and down about,'' Chandler observes. Special interests start to motivate people politically - a force that changes the pressures on governments.
Even with all the local change, and despite his crusty exterior, Chandler's blue eyes twinkle convincingly when he surveys his situation and says, ''It's a lovely life. If I had to do it all over again, I'd have been in the same business, in the same town, and married to the same woman.''