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From proofreader to Hall of Fame, Scarborough made her mark in journalism

By Pat Borden Gubbins
Correspondent
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Ellen Scarborough

With a high school education and no journalism training, Ellen Dempster Scarborough rose in the 1950s from a Charlotte Observer proofreader to the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame.

Known for her dry wit, sense of adventure and eagerness to go anywhere and cover any story, Scarborough died Friday at Sardis Oaks in Charlotte. She was 89.

Born in Camden, S.C., Scarborough raised her four children in Charlotte. By 1968, she had become bridal editor of the Observer. Her writing skills led to a promotion to home furnishings editor, covering the annual Southern Furniture Market in High Point. In 1980, she was inducted into the furniture market’s Writers Hall of Fame.

Her curiosity had her hitching rides on 18-wheelers to learn about the CB radio fad and rappelling down a seven-story building with Civil Air Patrol cadets.

Scarborough traveled to Brazil in Charlotte’s first Friendship Force exchange, which led to later travels to the Netherlands, South Korea, Mexico, France and Ireland.

In 1981, she moved to the Fayetteville Times as a general assignment reporter, with a focus on education. Two years in a row, she won first place in the N.C. Press Association’s general news reporting category.

In 1986, she wrote about donating a kidney to her son, Randy Scarborough. “This was done even after she had survived cancer surgery,” he said. “The kidney donation was a loving and courageous act for which I will be forever grateful.”

Randy Scarborough remembers that his mother never left a crossword puzzle untouched, and she once wrote a story for the Times describing herself as the “fallen woman of Hay Street” for fracturing a leg while playing leapfrog down that once-notorious street in Fayetteville.

For 20 years, Scarborough served on the selection committee for the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame, chaired by Richard Cole, former dean of the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Several years after leaving the committee, she was chosen to join the ranks of journalists whose photographs hang in the Hall of Fame on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill.

“Ellen was always one of the sharpest and most savvy journalists anywhere,” Cole said. “She also had a wonderful down-to-earth sense of humor that cut through pretensions and got to the real meat of things.”

During her career, Scarborough won more than 90 awards for news reporting, travel writing, public relations and speech writing.

After her 1990 retirement, she returned to Charlotte and volunteered as a driver for the American Red Cross. For more than 18 years, she took part in 41 responses to fire, flood, hurricane, tornado and other disasters. She served as a spokeswoman for the Red Cross, often appearing on television.

In 2011, she moved to the independent living center Willow Grove near Matthews. Before long, she was producing newsletters. In the first one, she described her “four lives” – as a homemaker, journalist, Red Cross volunteer. Of life No. 4 at Willow Grove, she wrote: “I intend to make it as interesting and productive as all the rest.”

In July 2012, she was admitted to Sardis Oaks, a long-term care community.

Survivors include sons Randy Scarborough and wife Lillian of Raleigh; Tim Scarborough and wife Emma of Knoxville, Tenn; daughters Linda Gilliland and husband Elwood of Casper, Wy., and Bonnie Eskridge and husband Joe Eskridge of Tryon, as well as five grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.

Arrangements are incomplete.

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