Nashua, N.H. — As Andrew Rothovius peers up from his lunch at one of the restaurants along Nashua's Main Street, an amused look brightens his round, slightly owlish face. ``I find it difficult to understand people who say they're bored. The main problem is finding time for all the things that interest me,'' he says. That comment is a kind of signature for this quiet, unassuming man who spends his days in the storage-and-retrieval department of Sanders Associates, a local defense contractor, and his evenings immersed in an intellectual world of his own creating.
It's then, after hours, that Mr. Rothovius's real work begins. From those long hours with books and scholarly journals flows a stream of remarkable columns that have run weekly in the Peterborough (N.H.) Transcript since 1971. They are remarkable for their length, their boggling array of subjects, and for their appearance in a small-town journal that reaches only a few thousand readers in an area where maple trees hugely outnumber people.
It's country journalism of a sort, marked by a style that echoes the elaborate sentence structures of the 19th century. But it's country journalism with a global touch.
Rothovius frequently chooses subjects that scribes in big-name publications dip into also -- for example, whether the A-bomb was necessary to bring Japan to its knees. The next week, however, he's likely to plunge into a subject other journalists wouldn't touch, or know how to touch -- why early 20th-century British novelist Constance Holme sank unjustly into obscurity, for instance.
Although the Transcript, a 136-year-old family-run weekly, circulates to only 6,000 people, most in the Monadnock region of southern New Hampshire, Rothovius's column has garnered a farther-flung readership. Many of these enthusiasts are urbanites who summer in the area and have acquired a taste for its distinctive columnist.
One of them is Erazin Kohak, a professor of philosophy at Boston University. What initially struck him about Rothovius's columns, he says, was that this man ``was doing the reading for the readers of the Transcript.'' Rothovius can take an anniversary -- say, the start of the World War I -- and ``it's almost as if he were a reporter covering the outbreak of the war.'' Through his column, readers acquire ``a sense of history, a sense of the breadth of the world,'' Dr. Kohak says, ``something not all th at common out here.''
Not that Kohak always concurs with Rothovius: ``The writing has an editorial ring to it I've always enjoyed, though I don't necessarily agree with his particular leaning.'' Another reader says half the fun of the column is the letters to the editor it generates, often from retired academics who have settled in the shadow of Mt. Monadnock.
As for the column's appeal, Transcript publisher Paul Cummings says frankly, ``It doesn't belong in a weekly newspaper, but, by golly, I wouldn't dare to drop it!''
Whether on the news or unashamedly off it, Rothovius columns -- all 2,000 intricately arranged words of them -- carry a stamp of painstaking research and a tone of authority that could seem at odds with the soft-spoken gentleman seated across the lunch table here. At odds, that is, until this practitioner of his own unique brand of journalism tells a bit of his life story.
``I'm a totally self-educated person. I never attended any school, public or private,'' he reminisces, explaining that ill health kept him out of school.
``He's not a research scientist, not a historian who adds to knowledge,'' says Dr. Kohak, but someone who pursues research ``out of love, out of delectation.''
Rothovius was born and still resides in nearby Milford, a town, like Nashua, that's sprouting condominiums and McDonald's franchises as new high-tech industries move into southern New Hampshire. His parents, Finnish immigrants with very little money or education, spoke no English. It was his sister who eventually taught the bright youngster the language that was to become his lifelong passion.
``By the time I was 10 years old, the outlines of my interests were already formed,'' he says. History and literature have a special hold on him. Local lore was an early specialty. ``Now,'' he says, ``I write more on things all over the world.''
One recent column informed readers that July 4 marks more than the birth of the American nation. That day (the evening of July 3) also marks the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, an engagement that swung the Civil War in the Union's favor. Credit for that victory, or so Rothovius asserted, belongs largely to one Herman Haupt, a key aide to Abraham Lincoln, who was among the first to realize the importance of rail links in resupplying troops.
Another column used current Mideast tensions as a springboard to review the now-forgotten career of W. H. I. Shakespear, the young British officer who in 1913 established the first Western diplomatic contact with the then-emerging House of Saud, destined to become the dominant political force on the Arabian Peninsula.
Literary favorites include Thomas Hardy, for his steadfast stand for ``a moral purpose in the universe,'' and Anthony Trollope, because, says the columnist, he is ``so true to life in his analysis of people.'' Both authors inspire columns at least once a year.
On occasion, Rothovius is asked to write something pegged directly to a local happening, such as a recent fish kill in the rivers that flow through Peterborough. That's fine by him. He's currently gathering information on similar occurrences in rivers in other parts of the country. It may all end up in a wide-ranging environmental column encompassing the decline of New Hampshire's native pine trees. Once Rothovius sinks his teeth into a subject, he's relentless: ``When a subject interests me I'll pursu e it -- maybe for months.''
He classifies those interests under three broad headings: (1) ``anything that has to do with human curiosity -- exploration, discovery, both in the spiritual and physical fields''; (2) history, specifically ``the endlessly fascinating interplay of motives and actions''; (3) human talent -- ``great writers, artists, musicians, scientists.''
The scene of most of Rothovius's unending mental forays is the Milford Public Library, an institution now blessed with computers that link it to libraries all over the country. Electronics has thus lengthened the columnist's grasp, much to his pleasure. ``Some very esoteric stuff is available,'' he says, beaming.
His long-established habit is to first ``turn to the bibliography pages at the back of a book'' to answer the burning question ``Where else will this lead me?''
Which leads nicely to one of this singular man's favorite quotations, a brief line from T. S. Eliot's ``Four Quartets'': ``We shall not cease from exploration . . . .''
``That,'' he says, smiling, ``sums up my philosophy.''