Thursday, April 23, 2015

Prize-winning colleagues, every one

Someone said a long time ago it's not enough to be good; you've got to be lucky, too.  Dunno about the good part, but I do know that I've been a lucky guy for just about every one of these going-on 69 years. Had good parents, good teachers, good editors, good friends and good times.  Had superb bosses along the way -- Irwin Smallwood and John Alexander at the Greensboro Daily News, Ran Coble at the NC Center for Public Policy Research in Raleigh and Ed Williams and Rich Oppel at the Charlotte Observer.

But today I'm writing about the people I worked with and who have been recognized by their collegues as THE best in the business.  I'm talking about Maria Henson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her editorials about battered women when she worked for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentrucky.  She later joined the editorial staff at the Observer and worked for several years with me in the Observer's Raleigh Bureau. With her energy and drive and insistence on good writing and and her impatience with ineffective government, Maria showed why she won journalism's top prize.  She's now Associate Vice President and Senior Editor at Wake Forest University.

And I'm talking about Kevin Siers, the Minnesotan who came south to draw pictures for the Observer's editorial pages a couple of decades ago and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for "thought provoking cartoons drawn with a sharp wit and bold artistic style."  Kevin's work was at times hilarious and and times painfully poignant but always with a sharp point.  He was also a most collegial co-worker.  I never spent more than a week or two in Charlotte at any one time, but always enjoyed wandering into his office to see what he was working on, and to get him to tell me how he was doing.  Almost every time it was, "Not too bad."  Yep. Pulitzer Prize.  Not too bad.

And I'm talking about Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig, who this week won the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting about wrongdoing and mismanagement in the Secret Service. She was part of a team that won last year's Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on national security issues, and won various other prizes for her investigative reporting, including stories about Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife that eventually led to their convictions in court.  Carol worked in the office next to me in the Observer's Raleigh Bureau, and watching her investigate wrongdoing in state government was like being in a classroom with an excellent teacher.  Haven't known many people who could so quickly develop such good sources that produced so many useful stories that fulfilled the newspaper's key job of watching and reporting the truth. 

It surprises me not one whit that Maria, Kevin and Carol won the Pulitzer.  It does surprise me that many of my other colleagues at the Observer and in Greensboro have not also won the big prize for their labors in uncovering stories that huge institutions such as government and business did not want in print.  Their work was excellent and unrelenting and deserving of high honors, and maybe someday they will get them.

I won more than my fair share of prizes and honors in my four decades of journalism, but the closest I came to the big prize was probably the delightful meal served up by my then-Greensboro colleague, Windy March, now in Florida.  It was a chicken dish -- appropriately called "The Pullet Surprise."  It was a prize-winner, too. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The War's End for Great-Grandfather Betts

    While looking for something else this morning my hand came on a little book published a good many years ago and reprinted in the 1960s by cousins in Sanford. It was my great-grandfather A.D. Betts' "Experiences of A Confederate Chaplain, 1861-1865," recounting a Methodist minister's treak across the South while serving as chaplain of the 30th North Carolina under Lee and Jackson.

     It was 150 years ago last week that he wrote of the end of that awful Civil War, and his story concluded not far from the Greensboro home where my father was born a little more than  half a century later (1906) and where old A.D. would spend the last years of his life, dying when my father was 12.  I'd always heard him referred to as an impecunious parson, a gentle man kind to those he served, comforting Northern as well as Southern soldiers wounded or dying. 

     But I've also found bits of his diary disturbing in some ways.  Had the troops he supported won the war, it would have prolonged slavery.  And as you will see,  his final entry suggests that at war's end, he took with him one of those slaves ("a negro servant," as he put it) whom he addressed as "Boy," though it is unclear to me whether he owned this "servant," or  was simply taking him along with a horse as a favor to a friend. I never heard any of my family discuss the ownership of slaves, another one of those curious practices often found in Southern families whose collective archives of pictures, writings, odd pieces of furniture and personal belongings give only the vaguest clues as to their participation in the customs of the day.  It begs some research.

     Here's how he recounted that time in the last entry of his diary, dated April 9, 1865 but evidently covering several days:

April 9 (Sunday) - Heard Brother Willson preach.  During this week heard that Lee had surrendered! Sad news. Johnston's Army passed through Chapel Hill. We knew Sherman would soon be in. I did not wish to meet him. I told some of my friends I was going with Gen. Johnston's Army. Rev. Dr. Charles Phillips tenderly told me to go on and my friends would take care of my family. After midnight I kissed my wife and children and mounted a mule and rode away, thinking I might not see them in months or years. I rode all night, crossing Haw river, overtook Johnston's Army and reported to Brig. Gen. Hoke, who assigned me to duty as Chaplain to 17th N. C. Regt. We camped a few miles from Greensboro for two or three days till we heard we were to be surrendered. I rode to Greensboro one day and met Rev. Dr. John B. McFerrin of Nashville, Tenn., at the home of good Mrs. F. M. Bumpass. 

 The night following the tidings of our contemplated surrender was a still, sad night in our camp. Rev. W. C. Willson, the Chapel Hill pastor, was with us. We had preached a few times in that camp; but that night we made no effort to get the men together. In little, sad groups they softly talked of the past, the present and the future. Old men were there, who would have cheerfully gone on, enduring the hardship of war, and protracted absence from their families, for the freedom of their country. Middle aged men were there, who had been away from wives and children for years, had gone through many battles, had lost much on their farms or stores or factories or professional business; but would that night have been glad to shoulder the gun and march forward for the defense of their "native land". Young men and boys were there, who loved their country and were unspeakably sad at the thought of the failure to secure Southern Independence.

        Rev. W. C. Willson and I walked out of the camp and talked and wept together. As I started back to my tent - to my mule and saddle, I should say, for I had no tent - I passed three lads sitting close together, 
talking softly and sadly. I paused and listened. One said, "It makes me very sad, to think of our surrendering." Another said, "It hurts me worse than the thought of battle ever did." The third raised his arm, clenched his fist and seemed to grate his teeth as he said, "I would rather know we had to go into battle tomorrow morning." There was patriotism! There may have been in that camp that night generals, colonels and other officers who had been moved by a desire for worldly honor. Owners of slaves and of lands may have hoped for financial benefit from Confederate success. But these boys felt they had a country that ought to be free! I wish I had taken their names. And I wonder if they still live. They are good citizens, I am sure.

        Next day I mounted my mule and started to Chapel Hill, intending to surrender there. I took along a negro servant and horse for a friend. At sunset we met an old man at his spring near his house. I politely asked to be permitted to spend the night on his land. He objected. I said, "Boy, take off our saddles and halter our horses." The farmer quickly said, "If you will stay, come up to the house." I slept on his porch.


        I had seen many of them dead, wounded, or prisoners. Near Chapel Hill one rode up to my side. The Blue Coat and the Grey chatted softly and sparingly. He kindly offered to show me the way to headquarters. I thanked him and told him I would ride to my house and see my family and report myself later. The town was full of Federals. Each home had a guard detailed by the commanding General. My guard was a faithful, modest fellow. In due time I called at headquarters and was paroled. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Music in the hills of Georgia

This is how it looked one recent Saturday at John and Jody Bowles' house in Georgia -- before the music storm
In the middle of a dreary March marked by frequent snows and cold rains and blustery winds, John and Jody Bowles and their friend Neal Spivey did a remarkable thing: They invited dozens of musicians to bring their instruments to their home just outside Atlanta for a weekend of playing the music that once took the world by storm -- before the British Invasion.  Devotees of The Kingston Trio flew in from California and drove down from Minnesota and up from Florida and out from St. Louis and Ohio and south from New Jersey and Virginia and North Carolina to play everything they could think of.   It was billed as the Second Annual Kingston Trio Mini-Camp, playing off the long-running annual Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp held each summer in Arizona -- and sold out every year, at a pretty handsome price.

In the 1950s, The Kingston Trio was on top of the music world -- producing more albums each year and selling zillions of records and performing on college campuses and in clubs and auditoriums around the world.  "There had been other urban folk revivals, but it was  The Kingston Trio that set the wildfire, single-handedly ushering in the really big 'folk boom' of the late 1950s and '60s," wrote William J. Bush in "Greenback Dollar: The Incredible Rise  of the Kingston Trio."  Their first five albums all became number one sellers, something no other group has ever done.  Fourteen of their albums were among the Billboard Top 10 at one time or another, Bush added.  Nobody came close in popularity, until the Beatles (who reportedly were big Kingston Trio fans themselves) and Rolling Stones transformed popular music once again.  But the Kingston Trio still has a strong following, and the current Kingston Trio performs on the road 30 weeks a year, usually selling out, I'm told.  They remain popular because it's good music, they appear to still be having fun and they're accessible to their fans.

If you are into music, chances are you have seen a lot of Martin Guitars and Deering banjos and other pricey instruments.  You could buy a pretty nice mini-mansion on lakefront property for the money tied up in the collection of Martins in the Bowles home that day.  The Martin guitar is the standard for performers and serious students of guitar, and John Bowles owns Martins dating back to the late 19th century.  Others have had their Martins rebuilt, including one four-string tenor guitar that its owner, Bruce Blasej, had rebuilt into an eight-string tenor guitar for a fuller sound when played way up the keyboard. I got in on this deal when my friend of a half-century and more, Wood Allen of Charlotte, got us invited down to Alpharetta to join in. Wood's going as a camper to the fantasy camp this summer and I'm tagging along to take notes and pictures and maybe play a little guitar on the side. My instrument of choice is a 1959 Kay upright bass, but it's hard to pack that baby into an overhead baggage compartment, so my little Blueridge (yep, one word. Sigh.) tenor guitar -- a dead-on knockoff of the beautiful Martin tenor guitar played in Georgia by Rob Reider -- will make the trip with me.

That's Wood Allen, left, guitarist Tony Lay, center, and Stan Sheckman, right, on the bass guitar
 We played Friday evening, all day Saturday and Saturday evening, and all Sunday afternoon, running through as much of the Kingston Trio repertoire as we could remember and segueing into the Eagles, the Limelighters, and a lot of individuals, most particularly that of John Stewart, who joined the Kingston Trio in the latter 1960s and brought with him a new dimension in sound and songwriting.  One of the highlights of the weekend came Saturday afternoon when Rob Reider hooked up his laptop to the Bowles' TV and tuned in Bob Shane and his wife Bobbie out in Arizona so that we could serenade them live with  the rousing "I'm Going Home" march that the Kingston Trio made famous. Here a clip from that taken by Beth Woodward:

(If that video won't work for you, Wood Allen suggests trying this link:)

Bob Shane is a revered and legendary figure in American folk music, but his work transcended the field. Early on he was known as the "Hawaiian Elvis Presley." After Shane recorded his hit "Scotch and Soda," Frank Sinatra turned down the opportunity to cover it because, it has been written, no one could do it better than Shane already had.  Shane not only survives, but as the owner of the Kingston Trio band, he's still performing on occasion with the current K3s (George Grove, Bill Zorn and Rick Dougherty), and overseeing the production of new albums (Wood and I have a song that will be on a new disc) and the Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale, AZ.  What was fun about this weekend is that his grown children also came by the Bowles' house and brought their grandchildren, so in one weekend we played for three generations of Shanes.  Pretty cool.

A very long time ago, Wood Allen and I and Fred Birdsong and later Jim Garrison thought we'd hit it big in folk music.  We thought we might be the next Kingston Trio.  We didn't and we weren't.  But thanks to a lot of nice folks who have kept the Kingston Trio flame alive and burning brightly, we've had a chance to know them, work with them in the studio and -- on occasions like the mini-camp in Alpharetta, play for the one of the originals.  As a Minnesota friend of mine likes to say, Not too bad.