When M.S. Van Hecke came to The Charlotte Observer in 1953, no office building had been built for 25 years and no hotel since before the war. The city limits ended just south of Dilworth.
But the city was about to begin a remarkable run of growth. And for nearly four decades Van Hecke was the one who chronicled it as an Observer editor and columnist.
Merwin Spenser Van Hecke died Saturday at 89 after a brief illness.
"We always felt comfortable with his deep feelings about our city, that while he was reporting on the things going on and the growth, he was a person who deeply loved Charlotte," says developer Johnny Harris.
Van Hecke, who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, held many jobs at the paper. Over the years he served as city editor, state editor and news editor. But he made his mark as business editor and columnist.
He wrote about the opening of the city's first coliseum, its first shopping mall and the rebirth of uptown. Not that he necessarily realized their importance at the time.
"Journalists like to think of themselves as instant historians," he wrote in a 1991 farewell column, "but many of us missed the significance of some profound changes as they occurred."
He reflected on how a nine-story bank building on Tryon Street in the early 1950s would launch an uptown building boom. How SouthPark mall in 1970 would lead to a virtual satellite city. How the later expansion of the airport and banks would be engines for continued growth.
But it was Van Hecke's relationships, particularly with business leaders, that helped make him the authority on Charlotte business. It was said that Hugh McColl Jr., who as CEO presided over the rise of a regional bank known as NCNB into Bank of America, once said Van Hecke was the only Observer journalist he would talk to.
"Van Hecke was such a personable fellow that he won the confidence of business people all over town," says Jack Claiborne, a former Observer editorial writer. "He was just a good person to be with. There was a conviviality about him that made you like him immediately."
Former Observer Editor Rich Oppel said Van Hecke "left judgment to others."
"His quiet presence was the true north in journalism and life," Oppel said, "especially when the magnetic fields of faddish pursuits pulled us off course."
Van Hecke was inducted into the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame in 1992. In retirement, he developed a series of videos of Mecklenburg County history for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. At UNC-Chapel Hill, a scholarship was established in his honor for students with an interest in business reporting. More than 40 students have been awarded the scholarship since 1993.
A celebration of Van Hecke's life will be held at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Waxhaw United Methodist Church, 200 McDonald St., Waxhaw. Visitation is Friday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Heritage Funeral Home, 3700 Forest Lawn Drive, Matthews.
The family requests, in lieu of flowers, a memorial to the M.S. Van Hecke Award #242490, UNC-Chapel Hill, PO Box 309, Chapel Hill, NC 27514, or online at http://mj.unc.edu/ or by calling 919-537-3818.
"He was a product of Charlotte and understood our city and loved the can-do feeling that so many people in leadership had," says Harris. "And I think those people respected him."
Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill