Friday, December 04, 2009

Lessons from an old newspaperman

Ed Hodges' death the other day caught me by surprise. He was only 90 and I thought he was off somewhere getting ready to cover a presidential trip to Copenhagen or something. He had been covering life in North Carolina -- and for a time flying with presidents -- for so long for the Durham Herald-Sun that even his retirement years ago just didn't sound right.

A native of Tarboro, Ed was an exemplar of the citizen soldier. His college career in Chapel Hill was interrupted by World War II, where he wound up flying all kinds of airplanes including those giant cargo craft "over the hump" of the Himalaya ferrying supplies and equipment to Army Air Corp bases in China and keeping Chiang Kai-Shek in the war.

After the war Ed worked for a while at the Stanly Press in Albemarle before winding up at the Durham Morning Herald, later the Herald-Sun, as an editor and columnist. I ran into him in 1968 as a greenhorn intern at the Herald, trying to get some course credit and some experience covering the news. There were great mentors at the Herald: Cornelia Olive, now the mayor of Sanford, who taught me how to work sources and advised me always to get a decent dinner when you're on the night shift; Chuck Barbour, who taught me to always stay on the in with the outs when you're covering politics; and city editor Jim Carr, who taught me you need a good sense of humor in this business because nobody goes into it for the money. And there was Ed Hodges, whose graceful writing about ordinary folks as well as the high and mighty was a big draw for readers.

Ed taught me a couple other lessons. One of them was to be careful what you say because somebody might put it in the paper. The other was never waste an anecdote. Keep it with you because one day you might need it for a column.

I learned a lot that semester of spring 1968, but on my last night not much was happening. About an hour before my shift end, I rolled a piece of copy paper into an old typewriter and amused myself by dashing off a yarn about my "retirement" from the Herald at the ripe old age of 21. Written in classic AP style, the second graf noted that Betts had "distinguished himself in a brief career with the Herald by garnering four bylines, 2,346 rewrites and a short article about a student demonstration on the state page….. While he was on the Herald staff, Betts was paid nothing and produced a corresponding quantity and quality of work."

The piece went on to note that after graduation in May, Betts was moving on to his hometown Greensboro Daily News "where he will be paid something, according to an unreliable source. In all probability they will make a copy boy out of him, or give him a small paper route, depending on how well he scores on personnel tests." And so on. I figured once everybody got a two-second chuckle out of it, the piece would hit the trash can where it belonged.

A few weeks later I showed up for my first day the Greensboro paper, where I was to start as a copy editor for $115 a week plus a $4 a week differential for working the night shift. When I walked in the door, my new boss looked up and drawled, "Nice retirement column" as he pointed toward the bulletin board. There hung my retirement column -- reprinted in Ed Hodges' "Folks Around Here" column a few days earlier in the Herald.

I expect I blushed beet red. Fortunately, there were no openings for a copy boy or a carrier that day, so I got to keep the new job on the copy desk. But Ed Hodges' lesson stuck with me. Never waste an anecdote. He used my "retirement" column for a column of his own 41 years ago, and now, so have I.


David P. McKnight said...

Ed Hodges helped this born-and-raised Charlottean to find a new North Carolina to call home in my first full-time newspaper position. I did a reverse course from Jack Betts' Durham Herald internship-to-Greensboro Daily News full-time slot as I had interned at the Greensboro paper for two summers prior to signing on with Durham's morning paper in an era when cities such as Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Durham and Raleigh also had afternoon newspapers.

I had accepted the opportunity to intern in Greensboro in 1967 and 1969 because I felt then as I still do today that Greensboro was and is the single most influential city in this state in terms of civic activities, educational outlook, urban business and residence strategies and just plain "being in the know."

This was part of my plan to help my hometown of Charlotte get a better grasp for and understanding of life across the Tar Heel State. Of course this mission remains unfulfilled today!

But at the Durham Herald, Ed Hodges became a sort of coach and mentor to an entire new generation of print journalism rookies. He was like a great pitching coach in baseball who, in crossing the foul line the first time to counsel a pitcher on his pitch selection, could give you enough good advice so that you rarely had to face the manager's second visit to the mound which of course meant you had to leave that particular "game" for another newspaper assignment.

Ed also had a knack for smoothing over differences of opinion inevitably arising among energetic reporters and editors trying to get a story just right. Ed would come up with some little tidbit about an editor's routine to reassure reporters that if they would just remain calm for a few minutes, their stories wouldn't get edited right out of the newspaper!

Best of all, Ed could make both Duke and Carolina loyalists feel like good teammates on the news and sports staffs by telling stories about Durham and Chapel Hill that would make you want to read an entire book of Ed Hodges stories.

Add to this the great wit, wisdom and sparkling personality of Ed's wife Betty, editor of the Herald's book section, and between Ed and Betty, where at the news office or at some restaurant or coffee shop around town, there was never a dull moment.

Well, there are probably a lot better testaments than this to Ed Hodges's life and career, but the thing I hope Charlotte folks will understand is that like the legedary Charlotte feature and sports columnists Kays Gary and Bob Quincy, here was somebody who could write just the line or two in a feature piece or a column that could make everybody in town smile or laugh before going in to work that day.

And since I had volunteered for the Army for a four-year hitch including language training school in Monterey but got turned away at the Mecklenburg induction center because of near-sightedness, it was great to have a sure 'nough Air Force colonel in our midst at the Durham Morning Herald to keep our appreciation for civilian-military relations fine-tuned as we followed diplomatic and military developments both at home and abroad.

We could have called him "Colonel" in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition, but this wise, gentle and highly perceptive journalist with a heart of gold who flew with so many Presidents on important international trips thsoe those happy years at the Herald, much preferred just to be called Ed.

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