Frank Barrows, a beloved former top editor of the Charlotte Observer whose journalism career took him from sports writing to leading the Carolinas’ largest newsroom, died Wednesday at his home in Charlotte. He was 72.
Barrows held many writing and editing jobs in his more than 30 years at the Observer. He left the paper in 2005 after 13 years as the newsroom’s managing editor, during which it was twice a finalist for Pulitzer prizes and scored hundreds of other awards.
Mark Ethridge, who preceded Barrows as managing editor, called him “one of the most brilliant editors and great writers who I ever knew.”
“He was a genius. He could conceptualize stories. Stories are about what happened to people, and he could understand the character arc of any story better than anybody I ever knew.”
A curmudgeonly Observer copy editor Barrows had once fired sent him a note when Barrows stepped down: “You were the only one worth a damn.”
Barrows’s wife, former Observer editorial writer Mary Newsom, said he had been ill recently with flu-like symptoms. His heart apparently “just stopped” Wednesday, she said. Barrows had had diabetes for years and had been on dialysis for five years.
Born in Lewes, Del., Barrows’s family moved to Martinsville, Va., when he was a child. He started calling ballgame scores into the Martinsville Bulletin as a teenager and worked there in summers during college. After graduating St. Andrews College in Laurinburg in 1968, he joined the Observer in 1969 as a sportswriter, later becoming a columnist.
His deep reporting and analytic writing, before the time of blogs and social media, made him an authoritative voice on ACC basketball.
Barrows once wrote an exhaustive account, in 1979, about why legendary UNC basketball coach Dean Smith had never won an NCAA title. Minutes after Smith finally won his first championship in 1982 came the coach’s first comment: “I guess we proved a very bright writer from Charlotte wrong tonight.”
As a writer, he was legendary for the quirky discipline he demanded of himself.
Former Observer editor Rich Oppel said he’d been in the job a short while when he saw Barrows at work, legs straddling a computer, earmuffs on his head and a bottle of Tab at his side, all while occasionally punching himself in the face.
“He said the only way he could write,” Oppel said, “was with a lot of Tab soda, earmuffs and striking himself in the face with a clenched fist when a sentence wasn’t good enough.”
Added former colleague Frye Gaillard: “I literally one time saw himself take off his belt and belt himself to the chair when he was struggling with a story so he could not get up and escape from the trials and tribulations of being a writer.”
Barrows began wearing white shirts and ties as an assistant sports editor in 1981. He rose through The Observer’s sports and metro desks before being named managing editor in 1992, supervising a staff of more than 250 journalists.
Reporters and editors who worked for him remembered a wry, gentle editor who supported and valued their work. Much of the staff he built had undergone hour-long candidate interviews in Barrows’s glass-walled office, which often included offbeat questions to divine their true nature.
The highly influential text “Coaching Writers” by journalists Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry described Barrows as “an idiosyncratic editor at the Charlotte Observer.”
“Barrows agrees ... that editors should not only tolerate eccentricity but celebrate it,” they wrote.
“He really loved helping people find their own best words,” said another former Observer editor, Jennie Buckner. “He was a coach through and through. . . . He saw the potential in stories. He saw the potential in people.”
Barrows loved basketball and sports, Mary Newsom said, but he really loved good writing.
“He loved helping people and was so proud that so many people he had mentored had gone on to become editors. When he left the Observer, all the writers and editors said, ‘you were the one who really understood writing.’ He heard the same thing from photographers and designers: ‘You were the one who cared about design and visuals.’ That’s a real testament that people felt valued.”
Upon Barrows’s departure in 2005, former columnist Tommy Tomlinson called Barrows “the conscience of the Observer. He’s a fan of great stories, a wise voice when you’re struggling, and he is always the last word on whether something is the right thing to do. Losing him is like losing a limb.”
After leaving the Observer, Barrows was executive editor of Business North Carolina magazine and was named interim executive director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, which he had helped found in 2004. He was an affiliate at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University when his wife was a Nieman Fellow in 2007-2008.
“He was a remarkable person as well as newspaperman,” said former Observer publisher Rolfe Neill, who retired in 1997. “His humanity showed through in everything he did. He was a splendid writer and a great teacher of younger journalists and a shining emblem that people aspired to emulate. His passion to tell the truth no matter what and to tell it in as balanced a way as he could possibly summon was probably the outstanding characteristic that he brought to the newspaper.”
In addition to his wife, he’s survived by his daughter, Margaret Barrows of New York City, a brother, Michael Barrows of Mineral, Va., and a sister, Lyn Barrows Boone of Granville, Ohio. Plans for a memorial service have not yet been made.