Taylor Batten

Farewell to the underdog’s champ

I’ll miss Fannie Flono.

I’ll miss the way she shaped editorial board discussions about tough issues. Fannie knows what she thinks, and why she thinks it, and she was never hesitant to push the rest of us to crystallize our own thinking.

I’ll miss her voice as the conscience of this community, forcing Observer readers not to look away from resegregated schools, or from the striking poverty right under our noses or from lessons of the past we’re in danger of forgetting.

I’ll miss her appreciation of history, and the context behind current events that she understood so well. I’ll miss her asking, frequently: “Has this happened anywhere else? How did they handle it?”

I’ll miss, when someone like Nelson Mandela or Maya Angelou or John Seigenthaler dies, reading Fannie’s columns about her first-hand experience with that person. I’ll miss her introducing me, through her writing, to not-as-famous heroes, like Ruth Gaddy and Daisy Stroud.

I’ll miss her quick laugh, on good days, and her determined work ethic on less-good days. I’ll miss her ambition for this newspaper, and her big ideas, such as hunting down and publishing a photo and summary about each and every soldier from the Carolinas killed in Iraq (there were 165), or traveling the state to report and editorialize on persistent poverty, both rural and urban.

Friday was Fannie Flono’s last day at the Observer. She retired after 30 years here, including 21 as an editorial writer and columnist. She will stay in Charlotte, and we celebrate her remarkable career. But her departure from this platform leaves our city, region and state a little bit poorer.

Our cartoonist, Kevin Siers, was here all 21 years Fannie was on the editorial board. I asked him for his thoughts about Fannie’s career. Kevin, always thinking in images, replied: “Can someone be both a rock and a lighthouse?”

Ever since Fannie announced her retirement, Observer readers have been telling me why they will miss her. Bill Anderson, the executive director of the nonprofit MeckEd, saw eye-to-eye with Fannie on the importance of strong public schools.

“When I think about Fannie, I think about consistency,” Anderson told me on Friday. “She always first and foremost will be an advocate for kids. She is always going to advocate for children and for public education and doing what’s right for our children – all our children, be they poor kids, rich kids or middle-of-the-road kids.”

I ran into Emily Zimmern, president of the Levine Museum of the New South the other day. She instantly wanted to talk about Fannie.

“She gives voice to people whose stories aren’t always told and she speaks truth to power,” Zimmern told me. “I’m challenged by her calls for readers to step up and do what is right and just.”

Fannie cares deeply about a lot of things. At the top of that list are family, equal opportunity and strong public education. She is offended by those who, as the saying goes, were born on third base and think they hit a triple. She cares for the poor, the discriminated-against, the victims of wrongful policies such as eugenics. Most any underdog, really, wins her concern, but she also expects accountability and fulfilling your potential.

As a prominent black woman in the South, she received more than her share of vile hate mail and voice mails and even threats. It just came with the territory, she believed, but never dissuaded her from sticking up for what she thought was right.

Now she gets to exhale for a bit. But I know Fannie, and I’m pretty sure she’s not done contributing. “This is the only life you get,” Fannie told Johnson C. Smith graduates last spring. “Make it the best one possible.” Thanks, Fannie, for leading by example.

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