Former reporter recalls fascinating array of stories, people

Published 6:00 pm Wednesday, April 29, 2009

By Staff
Dear Brownie,
Thanks for asking me to contribute to the Daily News centennial. I have a lot of pleasant memories of my tenure there as a reporter between the start of the school year in 1975 and the end of the summer in 1977, when I started law school at Wake Forest.
It was the first grown-up job I had after college, and I’m grateful to your dad for taking a chance on me. A lot of these recollections and the names of people and places have faded a little over the past few decades, but I’ll do my best to recall them.
One early memory was my interview with your dad there in his office facing Market Street.
I was there because I had recently read Carl Goerch’s book, “Carolina Chats,” where I’d seen in the preface that Goerch had got his start at the Daily News, and I figured that was a good place for me, too, especially since my friend, Doug McMillan, was teaching school in the original Washington and had offered to let me room with him.
Your dad needed someone to replace Charles Blackburn, who, based on my limited acquaintance with him, was a terrific writer. I’ve seen Charles’ bylines in Our State magazine over the years, a magazine ironically founded by Goerch. Your dad didn’t ask for any writing samples.
We just talked. He asked me if I could type. I told him I could, at about 50 words per minute on a manual, and apparently that was good enough.
I think I remember during that interview a blue Ford LTD with an aluminum extension ladder on its roof pulling up outside your dad’s office. The driver, a thin man wearing a short-sleeve dress shirt, a big bow tie and a hat he kept on, without knocking came into the office where my future was being considered.
I started to get up and either excuse or introduce myself, but your dad told me to sit back down, and he loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar while the thin man commenced to rubbing on your dad’s shoulders and neck.
After a few minutes of that, while we were still talking, your dad pushed some things around on his desk and kind of laid out prone on it while the thin man, by now introduced to me as Bully Freeman, stuck a knee in your dad’s back and started pulling on arms and legs like nothing I had seen before.
Your dad got himself back up, rolled his neck around, buttoned his collar, tightened his tie, paid Mr. Freeman $10, and I was hired after learning about the science of chiropractic. I think Mr. Freeman may have done electrical work, too.
One of my first assignments was to cover the Aurora-Chocowinity football game in Chocowinity, while Lin Respess, the sports editor, was covering the Pam Pack, wherever they were.
Two things stand out about that night, my first at a 1-A Conference event: a light rain and the relatively empty stadium at halftime when the band took the field. Lin was a talented writer, and I could tell he and Leslie Todd, the photographer and, sometimes, features writer, would miss Charles.
Leslie was living in an upstairs apartment in an older house in town; Charles had the apartment below in the same house. I can’t remember where Lin was living. The three of us eventually lived together in a cabin on the river, I think, beginning in 1976. And those were some very good times.
We had a little stern-drive fishing boat and a sailboat and spent a good bit of time on the river. Lin was especially good at frying corn mullet. The cabin was next door to Griffin’s Beach, which was a pretty rocking place on summer nights.
It seems as if every other song from the jukebox the summer of 1976 was either “Get Up Offa That Thing” or “We Love the Funk.” More than once, a loud Saturday night was followed by a peaceful baptism service in the river on Sunday morning with a small choir singing “Take Me to the Water.”
I remember the huge four-person partners’ desk in the newsroom. I sat south; Tom Spencer, the managing editor, was west; Lin was north; Leslie was east. Mary Bell Toler, the whiskey-voiced society editor, whose cigarettes we bummed, had her own desk to Lin’s left.
We all clacked away on manual Royal typewriters with reams of yellow copy paper. A winter-morning ritual was to stop by the Courthouse Restaurant for a wrap-around (a piece of white toast wrapped around a large, hot sausage with mustard and steamed hot in one of those levered aluminum foil-covered warmers that looked like smaller versions of a commercial laundry steam press) and a large coffee before sitting at the news desk.
Leslie was the most talented photographer I’ve known. He had good equipment, took beautiful photographs and spent a lot of time in the darkroom getting his images the way he wanted them. I have a few of them; one, a picture of three young girls on bicycles, is in our foyer in Asheville.
My beat was the courthouse and city hall, primarily: City Council meetings, Beaufort County commissioners’ meetings and cops and robbers. Once a month, I drove to Swan Quarter for the Hyde County commissioners’ meeting and came back through Belhaven for dinner at River Forest Manor and to cover the Belhaven Town Council meeting.
I came on the tail end of the Joan Little case, but the same sheriff was still in office, and Little had yet to be tried; so there was still some good copy related to her even though her trial was moved to Raleigh.
I covered most of the felony trials in Superior Court, and I suppose that was what led to my applying for law school: watching and listening to Leroy Scott, John Wilkinson, Jim Vosburgh and William Griffin.
The bigger stories I remember covering included Beaufort County’s efforts to comply with the Coastal Area Management Act and the 1976 election. There was quite a bit of angst over land-use planning, particularly when it was being forced on local governments.
And, as you probably remember, the newspaper served as election central with precincts calling in vote totals and those being tallied on big boards in the newsroom.
I remember missing few Washington High School basketball games in those years when Alvis Rogers and Dominique Wilkins were playing. I’m sure I’ve never seen a better high school team.
I remember eating fried herring as your dad’s guest at a gathering of a club of men who got together in the spring for that very purpose. They met down on some creek you got to by driving around the edges of several soybean and corn fields on the east side of the U.S. Highway 264 bridge.
I believe it was called the Herring Club, but don’t hold me to that. I just remember the herring, big lima beans, boiled potatoes, slaw and hush puppies — all cooked up by Ox Langley — and a good supply of bourbon.
I think I had introduced myself to Mr. Langley at Tom Spencer’s suggestion after coming into the office one morning and learning we would be publishing two newspapers that day, one devoted entirely to tobacco, since it was the opening day of the markets.
I told Tom I didn’t have any stories about tobacco and didn’t know where to go for any. He told me to walk to the fire station and ask for Mr. Langley, who, I believe, was the auctioneer at each of the warehouses. So I did, and I believe I came back with several stories, one about Mr. Langley himself.
One final memory was not my most-embarrassing moment there, but it was close.
Every day at noon, Tom would read the leads of the local stories and the obituaries over the radio, using a transmitter and microphone set up in the library.
And from what I remember, the earth stood still at least downtown when that happened, and everyone listened. One day, Tom had to be somewhere else, and it fell upon me to do the honors. So, I got my stuff together and went to the library. I put on the headset and listened for the station announcer to cue me. I switched on the mike and started reading away; only after a few seconds I started hearing music over the headphones. My radio debut never took off because I had forgotten to unplug the coffee pot and plug in the transmitter.
Best wishes for the second century.
Allan R. Tarleton
City editor emeritus