This is my last column as editor of The Observer's editorial pages. Taylor Batten takes over Monday, and I retire after 35 years here.
I am passing the torch into familiar hands from a new generation. When I applied for an editorial writing job here in 1973, Reese Cleghorn was editorial page editor and Jim Batten was executive editor and heir apparent to Editor Pete McKnight. Jim's son Taylor was 4 years old then.
After I accepted Reese's offer of too little money ($13,500, as I recall), we went to see Pete and Jim.
Pete, a Shelby native and Davidson College graduate, was a bold, brilliant editor who had made The Observer, in my opinion, the finest newspaper in the South. He had a sharp eye for talent, evidenced by his hiring of Jim, a fellow Davidson alum who later became CEO of Knight-Ridder Newspapers.
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We chatted briefly, then Jim asked the $13,500 question: “Do you think you can do this job?”
“Well,” I said, “I've got a lot to learn about economics, and I don't know much about world affairs –”
Jim grinned and interjected, “I mean, can you write something every day.”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “I can write something every day.”
For 35 years I've pretty much done that. The job offered the opportunity I sought: to be able to think and write about the important concerns of our time. I've loved it.
I'd been editor of my high school newspaper and the student daily at the University of Mississippi, but I hadn't planned a newspaper career. I wanted to be a historian.
When I got out of the Army in September 1967, Hodding Carter III called to offer me a reporting job at his family's newspaper, the Greenville, Miss., Delta Democrat-Times.
“I don't know,” I said, “I'm planning to go to graduate school.”
“You're not in school now,” he said. “Why not come down and earn a little money before you go?”
I still kid him about his insufficient emphasis on “little,” but the job was a life-shaping experience and Hodding became one of my dearest friends..
Three who shaped my career
I've worked with many fine journalists, but three have had the strongest influence on me.
The first is Hodding, a brash and brave editor who in the violent years of the civil rights revolution made his family's small-town daily a crusader for truth and justice.
The second is Reese, a man of character and conviction and an elegant writer. He showed me how editorial pages could evoke delight as well as speak powerfully on vital issues.
Reese, a Georgia native with degrees from Emory and Columbia University, also gave me an invaluable story. When he was a young writer for the Atlanta Journal, an editor told him never to forget this: “You're writing for the average Georgian, and the average Georgian is below average.”
That editor was right. A journalist must put communication ahead of self expression. You're writing for your audience, not just for yourself.
The third is Rolfe Neill. He edited the Daily Tar Heel at UNC-Chapel Hill, worked as a reporter here, went on to Miami, New York and Philadelphia and returned in 1975 as publisher.
The publisher is in charge of everything a newspaper does. An editorial page editor who's frequently at odds with the status quo couldn't have a better publisher than Rolfe, a skilled journalist and a man of courage, independence and piercing intelligence..
His greatest gift to me was his conviction that a newspaper's opinion pages must be a forum for all sides of the debates on important public issues – especially those that disagree with the editorial board's views.
On my best days, I've lived the lessons those men taught me.
I've learned a lot from readers, too. I believe editorial page readers are smartest, most interesting people anywhere. And I know that whatever I think on a public issue, there's some reader who's just as smart, well-intentioned and well-informed as I am who holds a contrary view.
Different experiences, priorities and values lead good people to different conclusions. To understand that is to begin to understand America.
What next? A book, then….
There's a lot I'll miss about this job, but I won't miss being on call all the time and being responsible to every reader for every word printed in the opinion pages. I want to set my own agenda and follow my own interests.
My wife, Marylyn, is happy with her work at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department (which has meant I've had others handle issues involving CMPD and city government). Our son, Jonathan, will finish at Duke law school in the spring, then clerk for Judge Grady Jolly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
My plans? I'm pulling together some of my writing for publication as a book. And then? Well, UNC-Charlotte has a splendid history faculty. Maybe, after a four-decade detour, I'll make it to graduate school.