Each year their heads get grayer, their steps slower, some years their numbers smaller. But still they come to the red brick house on a hill in northwest Greensboro to see old friends, old colleagues from long ago, to retell stories about the characters that once worked at the Greensboro Daily News and the afternoon Greensboro Record before it was folded into the morning paper. And they come to see the man who started the tradition that brings them back: Irwin Smallwood, perhaps the most decent man in American journalism for his time. And the annual host for, I don't know, maybe 40 or so editions of an annual ritual: Irwin's Christmas Party.
Now, you might think, so what? What of the fact that an assortment of men and women who worked together long ago keep coming back once a year to raise a glass and have a few laughs and catch up on who's gone over to the other side? What's the big deal about that? Happens anywhere and everywhere somebody is willing to open his home to folks who once toiled in his workrooms, doesn't it?
Maybe so. Probably so. But this one is different. And when it happens, as it did Friday night at Irwin's house, you appreciate the fact that you can still see folks you busted your brains out working with, trying to get a hot story in the paper on deadline so many years ago that it's easier to count them in decades. If you never worked at a newspaper, none of this makes sense. But if you worked for a good one, with good people who put out an entirely new edition every single day of the year, year in and year out, you know the truth of it.
Some history: By chance my mother, a teacher starving in South Carolina, came to Greensboro in the late 1920s to take a job in city schools. At a party she met my father -- accidentally sat on his fedora, or so the family story goes -- and they got such a laugh out of it they married, had a couple of kids. Not long before the first of the kids were born, my mother was teaching English and journalism at Greensboro High School. She taught a couple of boys who would become my mentors and friends and editors at the Daily News many years later: Moses Crutchfield and Irwin Smallwood. Irwin likes to remind me he saw the twinkle in my Dad's eye long before I showed up at Wesley Long Hospital some years later. I think she must have had Moses and Irwin in her classrooms about 1940 or so.
Many years later, when I was about to graduate from UNC Chapel Hill, I went to see Irwin about a job. He hired me as a copy editor on the night desk, but he was already planning for a new venture, the first of a series of regional editions the paper would put out in neighboring counties. I moved to the Alamance Bureau of the Daily News and with the guidance of the late Ben Taylor covered four or five stories a day before the Army caught up with me. I spent three years doing Regular Army duty, staying in touch with the newspaper folks when I went on leave. In 1972 the papers had an opening in the Washington Bureau. I filled it for a few years, then came back to Greensboro for a general assignment reporting slot before going to Raleigh to cover state government. I'd stay there the next three decades or so, working for the Daily News and for other publications.
Irwin taught me a lot about life, by his example and his counseling. He had been a first-rate golf writer and sportswriter who kept moving up at the newspaper and eventually became managing editor. I don't know how you manage a bunch of unmanageable individuals, but I think his basic decency and his interest in good stories were what his reporters and editors most appreciated. He encouraged his reporters to get at the interesting stuff no one else had. "What kind of person is he?" Irwin once asked when I was about to do a profile of some windbag. "What does he do when nobody's looking?" And once, regarding another politico we all had some doubts about, there was this question, asked with a smile on his face: "Does he push blind biddies in the creek, or what?"
One time the CEO of a big North Carolina utility company asked to meet with us to explain a rate filing or something. The meeting wasn't a good one. At the outset the big shot told a racist joke, not an uncommon thing at the time, and nobody laughed. I could see Irwin stewing about it. After the meeting, he was still steaming. I don't recall exactly the words he used, but it was something like, "If that ever happens again, we're walking out on the son of a gun." He didn't say "gun," either.
Every year in December, usually two or three weeks before Christmas, Irwin and his wife Ailene -- who my mother had also taught in high school -- would open up their house for a party. It began about nightfall and ended only when the Greensboro Daily News was delivered sometime the next morning before dawn. It went on that long because, Irwin knew, it was the only way those last few souls running the night desk would have chance to get by for a drink or two, a plate of food and some holiday merriment.
In those days I was a young man, and enjoyed seeing the old lions of the paper: Carl Jeffries, whose father as publisher of the Asheville Citizen had been instrumental in bringing the Blue Ridge Parkway through the NC mountains; Henry Coble, who read everything before it went into the pages of the Greensboro Daily News (and who briefly courted my aunt Pattie way back), Jon Yardley and Ed Yoder, before they went on to fame in Washington, and a host of characters the likes of which I will not see again. There was an ex-fighter who had fought under the name the Atomic Blond -- bald by the time I knew him. There was an engaging reporter who liked to call himself "Clark Dark." There was Ed Gray, whose sister Francis Gray Patton had been a well-known short story writer and author of a popular 1954 novel, "Good Morning, Miss Dove."
Nat Walker was the best city editor I ever worked for. His wise advice to
me was always to do the right thing, hold it to 20 inches and get it in
before deadline.The other night he retold, as he often will, a story about the night that funeral homes across the state were calling in an unusually high number of obituaries -- more than double, maybe triple the normal 25 or so, and when Leon Bullock brought over the third stack of fresh obits for Ed Gray to edit before sending on to the composing room, Ed had had enough. Leaping to his feet in frustration, he shouted something that sounded like, "Dad-blamit, these dad-blamed people ought to have taken better care of themselves!" Except he didn't say 'dad-blamit' or 'dad-blamed."
Somebody probably retold a Moses Crutchfield story that went this way. One day during the lunch hour, a disheveled, bleary-eyed street person wandered into the newsroom. Irwin's secretary Betty Walker, whose job it was to intercept the confused and straighten them out, asked if she could help him. Obviously disturbed, he said something like, "I have a message from God to talk to Jesus." And without batting an eye, Betty said, "Well, Jesus isn't in right now, but Moses is sitting right over there and will be happy to speak with you."
And there was a magnificent staff: Ned Cline, a nonpareil political reporter; Jerry Bledsoe, a fabulous storyteller, columnist and author of true-crime books; Stan Swofford, a bulldog investigative reporter who, if there were any justice in this world, would have won the Pulitzer Prize for his revelations about how the Wilmington 10 were railroaded; Sherry Johnson, a classmate and versatile reporter who went on to be sports editor of dailies in Wichita and Raleigh, Rosemary Rogers Yardley, a graceful writer whose opinions on world affairs broadened readers' understanding of a complicated world; Jim Jenkins, a talented feature writer in Greensboro who went on to become (and still is) the workhorse and backbone of the News & Observer's editorial pages for decades in Raleigh. I've left out a number of crackerjack newspapermen and newspaperwomen who could have worked anywhere in the country; a lot of them chose to stay in Greensboro.
Those Christmas parties at the Smallwoods went on for many years until Irwin retired. At some point he revived them as a sort of reunion, and when possible out-of-towners would come back through town just to see the old crowd. Irwin's wife Ailene died some years ago; so did Moses Crutchfield, and for a while Irwin and Fay Crutchfield kept company. Last week, I saw Irwin's daughter and Moses' daughter at the gathering, and in their eyes and thoughts you could see Aileen and Moses and the kinds of people they were.
The parties don't go on until the Daily News is delivered any longer. For one thing, it's called the News-Record now, a shadow of its heyday self, when people across the state subscribed and no politician would miss an edition. Stan Swofford doesn't sing the risque version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" anymore. None of us stays up late any longer, and the ranks of those who attend has thinned as the years have taken their natural toll.
But I take heart from the words of my longtime friend Mae Israel, who my mother had taught in her last year in the classroom about 1969, and who worked at the Daily News before going on to successful careers at the Charlotte Observer and the Washington Post. Just before the party broke up the other night, at least for us, she said something like, "You know, I haven't worked at any other place where something like this happens -- where people have such strong ties to each other that they keep coming back year after year. It really was a remarkable place to work when we were there."
She is right. I enjoyed just about every day at the newspapers and newsrooms and magazines where I worked for so many years. But I've yet to see another place like the newsroom atmosphere cultivated by those who worked at the old Daily News in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I didn't know how lucky I was then, but I know it now. It was a gift.