Bob Dennis, part of an Observer Pulitzer Prize team, dies at 86

Bob Dennis was an accurate and unassuming reporter and a kind-hearted friend, according to his former Observer colleagues.

Marion Ellis of Durham, another former Observer reporter, worked with Dennis on the week-long series of stories, “Brown Lung: A Case of Deadly Neglect,” which focused on the harmful effects of cotton dust produced in textile mills. The series won the 1981 Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service.

Dennis and Ellis often ate lunch together at a diner on South Boulevard.

One of the waitresses there had very bad teeth, Ellis recalled. One day, Bob asked her why she didn’t get them fixed.

“I’m a waitress,” Ellis remembered. “I can’t afford it.”

Bob offered to fix them for her, Ellis said. “It cost him $20,000. That’s the kind of person he was. Santa Claus.”

Robert Kimble Dennis, a Syracuse, N.Y., native who grew up in Binghamton, N.Y., died early Wednesday at the Levine & Dickson House at Southminster of complications of bladder disease. He was 86. His two daughters were at his side.

Dennis came to the Observer in 1962 and served as Rock Hill Bureau Chief, business and labor writer, and state editor.

In the early 1970s, Mark Ethridge III joined the staff as a reporter and pulled weekend duty. Bob Dennis was the city editor on Saturdays.

“I struggled to find something fresh for the Sunday paper other than a murder,” Ethridge said. “So one of the great things about Bob was his creativity and his ability to see in a story so many different things one might not expect.”

One Saturday, Dennis sent Ethridge, who would later become the paper’s managing editor, to Hickory “to find a story.”

Ethridge found a man in a coffee shop who had just returned after a frustrating decade in and around the Detroit factories.

When Ethridge told Dennis that all he had was this guy who had returned home to Hickory, Dennis “got all excited.”

“He was already onto the great reverse migration of Southerners, both black and white,” Ethridge said. “Those who had gone north in the earlier part of the century and were coming back because it wasn’t working.”

By the end of the day, Ethridge said Dennis had turned it into a front-page Sunday story.

“With his knowledge and creativity, he knew how to point a young reporter in the right direction,” Ethridge said.

As an editor and as a labor reporter, Dennis was, according to both Ellis and Ethridge, “accurate, accurate, accurate.”

Dennis left the Observer in 1986 and began a career in public relations with Epley Associates of Charlotte. His specialty was media relations and environmental issues, working with major companies.

Did being part of an investigative team that won not only the Pulitzer, but also the Robert F. Kennedy Award for reporting on the plight of the disadvantaged and the George Polk Award for best regional reporting, affect Bob Dennis?

“It should have,” said Ellis. “But it didn’t.”

A service to celebrate the life of Bob Dennis is at 1 p.m. Sunday at Harry & Bryant’s Chapel in the Oaks, 500 Providence Road, Charlotte, N.C., 28207. The family will receive friends after the service.