Mark Washburn

Charlotte Observer’s alumni bid farewell to an era of ink

Retired publisher Rolfe Neill, left, and former employee Rita Adams Simpson, who worked for both The Charlotte Observer and The Charlotte News. A reception was held Thursday 03.10.16 so former employees and their families could visit the South Tryon Street building one more time before the newspaper moves.
Retired publisher Rolfe Neill, left, and former employee Rita Adams Simpson, who worked for both The Charlotte Observer and The Charlotte News. A reception was held Thursday 03.10.16 so former employees and their families could visit the South Tryon Street building one more time before the newspaper moves. Mark Hames

As a rule, the newspaper never stops. It grinds along, steady as the mill wheel in a perpetual current.

But Thursday the Observer paused for a few hours in a spasm of self-revelry as former employees returned by the hugging dozens for a staff reunion and farewell to the newspaper’s 46-year home at 600 S. Tryon St.

In April, the paper will abandon the aging plant it has occupied since 1970, moving three blocks to modern leased digs in the NASCAR tower.

Hunched at the edge of uptown, the Observer’s two-block campus has never been considered an architectural attraction. It was a newspaper factory integrated with office space. When printing was shifted to presses in University City in 2014, it marked the end of manufacturing in uptown Charlotte.

It was a model of efficiency when it opened, said Ann Caulkins, the Observer’s publisher for the last 10 years. But with the company’s focus on digital products, the building is sadly out of date.

What is to be celebrated, she said, is the workers who have powered the enterprise since the 1880s. “We stand on the shoulders of very great people.”

Retired publisher Rolfe Neill, who led the Observer for 22 years through its greatest era of growth, couldn’t work up much nostalgia either for the four-story granite and cement slab awaiting the wrecking ball.

“It is a building, but it was the people that made it,” he said. “And what a time we had.”

Observer alum Chuck Cole led a team organizing the festivities. From the corporate archives, he assembled a remarkable list of more than 9,000 employees since the 1970s and posted their names in the lobby.

One of the names was that of Jack Edwards, 74, who started in the industry at age 9 with a Charlotte News paper route on College Street. He worked in the press room from 1958 to 2001.

He remembered the lunch-hour press fire of May 1969 in the Observer’s old building at Stonewall and Tryon.

“You could see the black smoke from Kannapolis,” he said.

When he got to work that day, the press room was still steaming from the blaze. But they were determined to get the paper out that night, and they did.

Edwards was a craftsman who still speaks with romantic verve about operating the great, roaring machines that fed the region its news and stimulated its commerce. He is among the ad reps, administrators, printers, pressmen, mailers, drivers, carriers and journalists who made the Observer a force.

“If you cut my veins,” Edwards said, pointing to his wrist, “they would bleed ink.”

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs

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