HARPSWELL — A Missouri newspaper executive drowned Thursday evening after falling from a wharf in Harpswell.

According to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department, Wally Lage, 66, chief operating officer of Rust Communications of Cape Girardeau, Mo., drowned after stepping off a private boat at 14 Whidden Road.

Town records show the wharf is shared by several property owners, including James Costello Jr., vice president of operations at Sun Media Group of Lewiston. Sun Media owns The Forecaster and the Sun Journal in Lewiston.

Jon K. Rust, co-president of Rust Communications and publisher of the Southeast Missourian newspaper in Cape Girardeau, said Friday that Lage was visiting Harpswell for an annual gathering of newspaper executives.

“He was with (Costello) and other very good friends and colleagues,” Rust said. “It was a trip he very much looked forward to every year.”

Costello, responding via e-mail, said “Everyone is still in shock and a little shaken up right now. Wally was a great person who I was lucky to know and spend time with for more than twenty years. He was a great business person and a greater friend. He was someone you could trust.”

The Sheriff’s Department said several witnesses saw Lage slip from the wharf. One person jumped into the water to find him, but Lage never resurfaced. The Sheriff’s Department said Lage may have become caught beneath a float, where his body was discovered about 30 minutes later.

The incident occurred around 9:30 p.m., after sunset and in limited moonlight.

Emergency responders from Harpswell Neck Fire Department transported Lage to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, where he was pronounced dead.

Further details about the incident were not immediately available from the Sheriff’s Department.

Lage was well known in the newspaper industry. According to a report in the Southeast Missourian, he oversaw the acquisition or startup of about 50 newspapers in eight states, including 13 dailies. The newspaper said Lage entered journalism in 1966 after being drafted into the military. By age 25 he was publisher of the Boonville Daily News in Missouri.

Lage was inducted into the Missouri Press Association Hall of Fame in September of 2008.

“Wally was a remarkable newspaperman and a great friend,” Rust said. “He will be greatly missed. We’ve been hearing from people from Seattle to Maine about his death. He touched the lives of many people.”

Lage is survived by his wife Dori, four children and seven grandchildren.

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