Local & State Voices

Goodbye to The Charlotte Observer

After 35 years of opinion writing for The Observer, I'm retiring in a couple of months. I'll stay long enough to help Publisher Ann Caulkins pick my successor, so you'll hear more from me for the next few weeks.

This doesn't have anything to do with buyouts or layoffs. I had planned to retire last year when I hit 65, but Associate Editor Mary Newsom won a fellowship at Harvard and I agreed to stay until she returned. Now she has.

I have never wanted any job but this one. I enjoy it immensely. But I'm feeling the way my friend and mentor, Rolfe Neill, did in explaining his retirement as publisher in 1997: It has been a wonderful life, he said, but there are other lives I'd like to lead.

I came here in 1973 because I wanted to work for the South's best newspaper. I believed that to be the Observer. I still do.

The Knight family had bought the paper from local owners in 1955 and hired C.A. (Pete) McKnight, a Shelby native and Davidson College graduate, as editor. He soon transformed the stodgy publication into a lively and aggressive newspaper.

Pete had been a prize-winning opinion writer. He wanted the Observer to have a strong editorial voice. So did John S. Knight, the corporate CEO who would win a Pulitzer Prize for his columns. So did Rolfe, a prize-winning writer before and after he became publisher in 1975.

Pete was a talent magnet. Among his finest hires were Rolfe, who had edited the Daily Tar Heel at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Jim Batten, a Davidson graduate who went on to become CEO of Knight-Ridder Newspapers.

Pete was editor when I interviewed for a job. Executive Editor Batten was the heir apparent.

The editorial page editor was Reese Cleghorn, a Georgia native who went on to build a fine journalism school as dean at the University of Maryland.

Reese, a wise and elegant writer, had been an editor in Atlanta when I was a reporter for Hodding Carter's Greenville (Miss.) Delta Democrat-Times. Reese used some of my stories in South Today, a feisty regional publication he edited.

I had been editor of the student daily at the University of Mississippi before going into the Army. After I was discharged in September 1967, Hodding called to ask if I'd be interested in a reporting job in Greenville.

I don't know, I said. I'm planning to go to graduate school. I want to be a historian.

You're not in graduate school now, he said. Why don't you come on and earn a little money before you go.

I've often chided him about failing to put sufficient emphasis on “little.” My starting salary was $95 a week. But my experience there was priceless.

I covered local government and politics plus the area's civil rights activities. Later I went to Jackson, the state capital, as correspondent for the DD-T and three other small dailies.

After covering the state legislature for three years I'd begun to feel like the Bill Murray character in the movie “Groundhog Day” – trapped in a time loop where events repeated themselves over and over again.

Harvard, Michigan and Stanford offer year-long fellowships for mid-career journalists looking for a break. I set my eye on Harvard because, as I told the lovely Marylyn Lentine, whom I met in Cambridge, I wanted to see if a son of the rural South was as good as those hotshots up North.

(What did you decide, she asked. That I was, I said. She thought it was hilarious, and married me anyway.)

It's hard not to love a free year at Harvard. The monthly fellowship stipend and GI Bill benefits paid me the most money I'd ever made. I met Marylyn, who was working with historian Frank Friedel. I was having fun and looking at a lot of opportunities.

After Harvard I worked a few months for the Ford Foundation on a study of prisons. I enjoyed the work, but I didn't enjoy being at the bottom of a huge bureaucracy.

I wanted more control over my life and more involvement in a community. So I wrote to Reese and asked how to get into editorial writing.

His answer: Come to Charlotte. I couldn't have made a better choice.