Hard To Say Goodbye

For me and for many of us, we wished this day didn’t come.

This afternoon, on a day that he would’ve turned 78, we’ll turn the last page of our friend Stan Swofford.

Some of us will be in a GSO church at 3 p.m. for the memorial service. Others of us will be in some other place far from any pew. Still, in a very symbiotic way, we’ll be together to remember and celebrate Stan, the husband of Kay and the dad to Katy and Andrew.

Stan-4Stan represented the best of us.

He was definitely the best of us who chased stories in North Carolina.

Stan spent 38 years at the Greensboro Daily News — and later its print sister, the News & Record – and he came within a whisper of winning the Pulitzer in 1978 for his work on the Wilmington 10.

The Wilmington 10 is journalism shorthand for a group of high school students led by a black minister who had falsely been imprisoned in the late ‘70s for burning structures during racial rioting.

Stan’s reporting got them released from prison and their sentences commuted by Governor James B. Hunt.

Stan wrote more than 70 stories on the Wilmington 10, and that work became the Mt. Everest of our newsroom because of its sheer impact beyond the printed page. Stan ascended that journalistic peak, and our newsroom – matter of fact, our city and our state – was better because of his work.

Ask anybody. Ask Irwin Smallwood, one of the giants of North Carolina journalism. He hired Stan and brought him to GSO in 1968. Irwin, the N&R’s former managing editor, talked to our paper a few days after Stan’s death. He sez:

“Stan was one of the greatest reporters we ever had — a combination writer and reporter. Someone might have been a better writer or a better reporter, but I’m not sure anybody ever did better at both.

He would have been a star at any newspaper in this country.”

No argument there. No argument from any of us who knew and worked with Stan.

We all have stories about the man who once … er … adorned a float in a GSO parade. Picture this: Stan on top of a van, perched between two canoes and dressed in drag as Princess Whitewater.

That’s him. Right there below, holding some sort of bouquet?

Beautiful, huh?

princess whitewater

Stan was my first editor at the N&R. I was just a kid journo in my 20s, scouring Randolph County and beyond for stories, notepad in hand. I also was wrestling with a bit of culture shock.

I was a native Southerner, a child of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, but I had come to the N&R from Boston. I worked outside the city at a daily newspaper and lived in the city near a half dozen bars, a famous rock club, a blues club, Boston University and Fenway Park. Then, I moved to … Asheboro, the largest dry municipality in North Carolina.

It was a place where I walked into a Food Lion on my second day at the N&R, criss-crossed the aisles in confusion, found a cashier and asked where the beer was.

“Sir,” she drawled, “we don’t sell beer here.”

So, I worked hard to find ways to enliven my time in the rolling countryside outside GSO. I’d have those conversations with Stan several times a week on the phone – we’d talk every morning about stories — and he’d just laugh.

“Jeri,” he’d growl, “I’m living vicariously through you.”

In between those conversations, Stan would tutor. Like all the editors I’ve had, Stan became a professor to me, and our conversations turned into a classroom.

He’d ask me questions about my stories, and I’d answer.

Now, fast forward to January 2013. This time, as the metro columnist at the N&R, I asked the questions.

I caught up with Stan at his GSO home because I wanted to hear about his memories covering the Wilmington 10 and many awards he received for the stories he wrote. The reason: I had a sweet newspeg.

Two weeks or so before our conversation, then-Gov. Beverly Perdue pardoned the people known as the Wilmington 10, and then-N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper approved $1.1 million in compensation for the six surviving members.

So, I began digging for information, color and quotes for a column about N&R’s Mt. Everest.

I also wanted to dig into the glory years of the Greensboro Daily News.

By 2013, circulation and advertising were going south at our city’s daily because of the newspaper industry’s broken business model, and there was this growing trepidation in our newsroom about the profession’s future as well as the future of print in GSO.

With that column, which would run on a Sunday, the paper’s highest circulation day, I wanted readers to remember why newspapers matter.

I also wanted to remind me of that, too.

So, I time-traveled in my copy to GSO 1976. Local reporters worked on typewriters, the tinny clackety-clackety-clack was the soundtrack of the newsroom and deadlines were bracketed between after-work trips to a downtown bar called J’s.

Meanwhile, editors and reporters hurled constant curse words at the latest newfangled advancement in journalism:

Computers.

Editors hated those things. Broke all the time.

Seems so long ago, doesn’t it? It was.

Back then, our city had two daily newspapers — the Greensboro Daily News and the Greensboro Record. Both thrived on competition, both operated out of the same newsroom, and both were full of characters – all looking for the best stories to tell.

Stan was one of those characters.

To me, he was like a Southern version of Seamus Heaney, the acclaimed Irish poet. Heaney went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for, as the judges described, works of “lyrical beauty and ethical depth.”

young stan

Stan

Both men were thick-bodied and broad-shouldered, two oldest sons full of humility and talent raised close to the earth. Heaney grew up in the ambling countryside of Northern Ireland; Stan, the mountains of North Carolina near Linville Gorge, the Grand Canyon east of the Mississippi.

In their youth, they both had wild tufts of hair, as thick as shag carpet. They were raised on the importance of newspapers, and they were born raconteurs, always willing to sit down with anyone to share a tale over a drink.

For Stan, that drink was often bourbon.

Seamus-1

Seamus Heaney

Heaney could talk for days about the appeal of the rolling Irish landscape – and he did that to me when I interviewed him in 1994 before he spoke at UNCG. He even told me what he probably wanted on his tombstone: “Maybe, the name, the dates, and `He’ll be back.'”

Stan, well, he told me how to wring a chicken’s neck.

We talked about that more than once over bourbon in his kitchen.

Cold MountainHe always said Charles Frazier got it wrong in his acclaimed book, “Cold Mountain.” Then, he’d demonstrate how you should do it properly, complete with the handgrips and the perfect twist of the wrist.

As his wife, Kay, says, Stan had that “western North Carolina attitude.”

He was the son of McDowell County, a stretch of mountainous land around the Pisgah National Forest named after a Revolutionary War colonel and whose county seat, Marion, is named after a Revolutionary War hero known by the nickname “Swamp Fox.”

Both soldiers were fighters. Stan was a righteous fighter, too.

He learned early about right and wrong from his parents, Leonard and Eula.

They never went to college. Leonard was a railroad man; Eula, a clerk in a thread plant. Eula was a school board member and president of the PTA, and both Eula and Leonard helped pick every principal for their sons’ high school.

Leonard and Eula raised their two boys to stand up for what they believe in and search for the truth. Stan, the oldest, had no problem pushing hard for what he believed was right.

He had the heart of a poet, the mind of a police detective and the wit of a barstool storyteller.

With his rumbling baritone, a cross between a bullfrog and a burp, he could coax anybody to talk. And yes, he had no fear. Just consider his history.

vietnam stan

Stan in ’65

He was a helicopter crew chief in the Vietnam War. He hung close to the helicopter’s door, firing a machine gun, lobbing smoke grenades and drawing enemy fire. In 1965, his helicopter was hit more than 100 times.

He came home and got a degree in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill. He loved newspapers because he grew up around a dinner table where politics and history, storytelling and literature were a constant conversation.

On that afternoon back in January 2013, Stan told me about all that.

I listened, scribbled down notes and scrambled back to Stan’s old newsroom to put into print the back-story of the N&R’s Mt. Everest.

He won many awards for the dozens of articles he wrote about the Wilmington 10. Those awards included the national Sidney Hillman Award, given to journalists who, according to the rules, “pursue investigative reporting and deep storytelling for the common good.”

Stan won that in 1977. He was the lone recipient in the newspaper category.

Check out who joined Stan in the winner’s circle that year. Quite the list.

stan-1

But when I asked more questions about the other awards, Stan went to a drawer at his desk and pulled out a plaque from the Commission of Racial Justice, the committee affiliated with the United Church of Christ that supported the Wilmington 10.

That, he told me, was his favorite award for all his work. The plaque reads:

For His Untiring Search For Truth

And Justice For the Wilmington 10 

Which Brought Into Full Light The Inconsistency

Between What Is Said About Justice

And What Is Done.

Stan did like that phrase.

“The state wasn’t playing fair,” he told me in 2013. “Ten people. Being railroaded by the state. There was too much there, and it made you wonder, ‘What is going on, man?’ ”

So Stan. We all did love him for that.

He imparted his righteous indignation, his dogged search for the truth, in so many of us.

Wilmington10

When Stan retired from the N&R in ’06, a former editor found in his personal file a handwritten note from August 1970. It was from Bob Scott, North Carolina’s governor at the time. Scott wrote:

Bob Scott“One of the first things I did upon returning from the National Governor’s Conference was to read your story in the Sunday edition on our correctional system. It was an excellent story, and I commend you for a job well done.

“I appreciate the willingness of the Greensboro Daily News to bring this issue to the public’s attention and the clarity and manner in which you wrote your stories.”

Reporters don’t get many of those.

But Stan never got aloof with his excellence. He was always gracious, never boastful about his stories or his work. When asked about the grist of what’s in a story he was working on, he’d be more prone to tell an editor, “It’s just awful, just awful.”

So, when he died July 16, many of us took to our keyboards to put into context the grief we felt, and every time I read them — whether on FB or Twitter or a blog — my heart cracked a little more.

We had to get it out.

Here are a few dispatches from some ex-pats of our old newsroom.

First, Pete Khoury, former N&R cop reporter, now a copy editor at The New York Times.

Pete

Pete with friend, Kristin Hussey Zisson.

“The day before I interviewed for a job at the News & Record in Greensboro in 1993, I read the article below by Stan.

This, I said to myself, is a paper I want to work for. Stan, who broke many important stories during his career, became a good friend and mentor and is one of my true heroes.

“We’ll meet again, Stan.”

The article Pete talks about is here. It’s from January 1993. It opened this way:

A smile marred only slightly by a decades-old attachment to Red Band chewing tobacco crinkles his face from ear to ear as Junius Wilson’s fingers flash through the air, forming the letters of his name. His dexterity, alertness and looks belie his 95-plus years. He could easily be in his early 70s. His eager-to-please cheerfulness belies his surroundings – and his past.

Wilson is in the day room of the geriatrics ward at Cherry Hospital – his home since Nov. 21, 1925. That’s when the state declared him insane, unable to stand trial against an attempted rape charge, and shipped him off to what it officially referred to as “The State Hospital at Goldsboro.’

It was the place everybody knew as the insane asylum for black people.

There, the state castrated him, and held him for 67 years – despite the fact that he was not insane.

He is only deaf and unable to speak.

Now to Susan Ladd, former N&R columnist and longtime editor, now a journalism professor at Elon University.

SusanOne of the best learning experiences of my career came when Stan and I set out to find “patriot” and militia groups across NC in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.

I was amazed at his ability to find people who didn’t want to be found. He was amazed at my speed as a writer. We made a great interview team with subjects who were combative and deeply suspicious.

It would have been easy to be intimidated by someone of Stan’s skill and reputation, but he simply wouldn’t allow it. He was humble and self-deprecating about his own talents and generous with praise for others.

He was also hilarious and profane, which meant we got along just fine.

When I got into a truck equipped with an extra fuel tank and God only knows what else, driven by a man who freely espoused racist and anti-Semitic policies and carried a Bible and a .45, I felt safe as long as I could see Stan in the rear view mirror, hunched over the wheel with the intensity of someone poised for a high-speed chase.
I loved him in that moment, and would continue to do so for as long as I knew him.

And John Robinson, former N&R editor known to all of us as “JR,” now a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

JR

JR with one of his students, Chip Sweeney, during their reporting trip this summer to Israel.

I was a new assistant city state editor working the morning shift for the afternoon paper, and I had been told to get someone to the United Way meeting the next morning.

The United Way report-out on how its fund-raising was going was, to be generous, worth about three inches deep inside the paper. The only person I could find who was remotely available was Stan.

Stan was always working on a long-term project, and for good reason, he was a freaking Pulitzer finalist! Along with Jim Schlosser and Jerry Bledsoe he was the grand poobah of the newsroom. Meanwhile, I was a wet-behind-the-ears editor.

I went to his desk. “Stan, could you cover the United Way meeting tomorrow morning?” I asked.

He looked up at me, said he could, and asked me when and where.

The next day, he went to the meeting and filed his story. I saw it in our ancient computer system, but when I went to edit it, it had disappeared. I couldn’t find it anywhere. My deadline was 12:30. At 12:15, as Stan and some other other reporters were preparing to go to lunch, I walked over.

“Stan, I know you filed your story but the computer’s eaten it. I’m sorry but, umm, can you rewrite it and file it again?”

The other reporters started chuckling. Stan didn’t groan or make a face or say anything but “OK. When’s my deadline?”

Then he turned to the others and said, “Where are y’all going? I’ll meet you.”

He made the 12:30 deadline.

One of the reporters came to me afterward and said, “That’s the fastest Stan’s ever written a story.”

So many stories.

So many comments.

They all carried their own exclamation mark about Stan’s life.

AnnLike Ann Alexander.

She was my former college editor at the University of South Carolina when I began wrestling with notes and quotes.

Three decades ago, when I was working for a daily newspaper outside Boston, I called Ann about the possibility of a reporting job at the N&R. I wanted to get closer to an ailing father and the land of my youth, that place of Spanish moss and boiled peanuts that felt as welcome to me as a Southern accent.

Didn’t hear many of those in Boston.

Back then, Ann worked as an assistant city editor at the N&R. A day after Stan’s death, Ann wrote:

I won’t say Rest In Peace, because Stan would prefer to raise hell for justice.

Yes. Hell, yeah.

Ann did get me in the N&R door. But Stan was one of the reasons that got me to come. I was drunk with joy when I found out a Pulitzer finalist was going to be my editor at the N&R.

“Don’t call me Mr. Swofford,” he told me the first time we met. “Just call me Stan.”

 

Stan-3

Our newsroom, past and present, from a reunion in 2014. Stan is in the far right, in the yellow short sleeve shirt, behind former metro columnist Lorraine Ahearn and former editor Betsi Robinson.

It was a Wednesday, the day after his death, when I got the email. From what I remember, it was the morning, and I was hustling from one side of campus to the other, grabbing quotes for my day job as the senior writer at High Point University.

When I read the email, everything stopped. We’ve all been there. It’s one of those moments where your world closes in around you and you can only see and feel one thing. You take stock of your life and remember who – and what’s – important. And sometimes, you just wanna shout, “Dammit, why!”

I felt that Wednesday. So, I shut my office door, sat down, went to FB and wrote about Stan.

More than once, he went to bat for me when I was young reporter searching for stories in Randolph County and beyond. In that stretch of countryside, where the past hovered over the present like a ghost, I found out firsthand what Southern Gothic really meant.

I don’t quite remember the story. It was something about some nasty crime. But I do remember Stan’s response to one of the quotes I grabbed.

“Why can’t we get ‘son of a bitch’ into that story of yours?” he told me once. “He said it in a quote, right? He told you that, right? Let’s get it in the paper.”

Stan got it in.

Stan was the calm presence, the wise sage of our newsroom. You could approach him for advice, get it and be regaled by a Stan story plucked from his rich life.

I mean, he was a helicopter tail gunner in Vietnam, you know.

After 38 years at the paper, Stan retired in ’06. It was like a punch in the gut for many of us. But he didn’t go far. He went on to teach journalism at UNCG. When he did, he asked me to talk to his classes about how to write with heart.

“Stan,” I told him, “I’m simply going to tell them what you taught me.”

“Oh,” he’d say in his tires-on-gravel voice. “Come on now.”

Stan. Always humble.

I ended up talking to Stan’s class a few times. Afterward, I’d find myself at his house, elbow on his kitchen island, nursing a bourbon and talking to him and his wife, Kay. Or really, I listened. Stan would once again share stories about journalism, books, family, politics, weird GSO shit, wacky stories he’d covered and how he always remembers every irreverent lyric from “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

He sang that every December at the Christmas party full of former journos from the N&R, Daily News and the Greensboro Record.

A good memory from a good party full of good people.

I’ll miss you, Stan. And thanks. For so much.

 

This afternoon, I won’t be in GSO. I’ll be on the other side of North Carolina, hanging close to the coast, vacationing with family and going on a college visit with my teenage daughter.

But I know I’ll be there in spirit in a GSO church, surrounded by friends and former colleagues who I consider as close as family.

Stan and I do know that church well. Congregational UCC. It first was Stan’s church. He always liked to tell me, “Jeri, that’s a source church. Folks you need to know go there.”

Now, Congregation UCC is my church. Irwin Smallwood’s, too.

If only those walls could talk …

Anyway, no matter where we are – and they are many of us — we’ll celebrate the life of one of our own at 3 p.m. today.

We’ll remember not only what he taught us, but also what he meant to us.

He was one of the best. More importantly, he was our friend.

We’ll hold that close. Forever.

Here’s to you, Stan.

 

Stan-2

The featured pic in this post was taken by N&R photojournalist Scott Hoffmann in June 1990 when Stan wrote a story about being a new dad as a middle-aged man. He was almost 49. Here are two snippets from his first-person piece. They’re below.

I suppose that a man decides to become a father at my age for the same rather vague reasons that drive men in their 20s and 30s: A desire, somewhat more urgent past the age of 40, to leave something of yourself behind; and a growing realization that you look silly watching “Sesame Street” alone.

There is also, at the risk of sounding smarmy, the love factor. I was damned happy that Kay Hall accepted me and my many bad habits, and a baby seemed like an appropriate exclamation point.

I must say, though, that I wasn’t quite prepared for all the changes. And, Lord, how quickly and completely becoming a father – a middle-aged father – changes you.

You do things that would have been unthinkable in the Age of B.F., Before Fatherhood. Like taking up jogging or quitting smoking, in the hope of – God, this sounds insane – playing basketball with your offspring at the age of 60.

Before Fatherhood, I’m told that I had the reputation of being a somewhat frequent and gregarious customer at a number of establishments known for their good drinks and good times. Heck, my monthly tabs paid the light bills for about three of them.

Every weekend was a party, sometimes two or three, and out-of-town holidays came easy and often. No more. Friday at Five means The Bugs Bunny Hour. The only establishment that considers me a regular now is Showbiz Pizza.

**

There are moments so rare that they should be encapsulated and preserved only in special places in the mind.

I experienced one a few weeks ago at twilight.

I was driving home after another long, hard day at work, and my mood was none too pleasant. In fact, it had not been pleasant for some time. There had been a lot of long, hard days, and I couldn’t see anything but a lot more in the immediate future.

As I got close to our house near Lake Daniel Park, I saw something that jolted me out of my nasty mood. The huge tree across the street looked as if someone had decorated it for Christmas. It was ablaze with fireflies, thousands of flickering little candlelights.

Kay sat on our front stoop, and Katy and Andrew appeared to be ankle-deep in diamonds as they rushed through the grass trying to catch the blinking lights.

They shrieked and ran to me when I opened the car door. “Daddy, Daddy! Lightning bugs!” screamed Katy, as she hugged one leg.

“Dadus! Bugs!” shouted Andrew, as he grabbed the other.

It made my day.

stan-2

Kay & Stan. Writes Stan: “I was damned happy that Kay Hall accepted me and my many bad habits.”

13 thoughts on “Hard To Say Goodbye

  1. So beautifully written, Jeri. Stan would have blushed. As it is, I am crying. I was one who frequented J’s and that may well be where I met Stan. Or it could have been when I would visit the newsroom with a press release or a story idea. He was always kind and seemed happy to see a 20-something gal who loved the Greensboro Daily News and the Greensboro Record and the competition between the staffs for stories. I have to believe that Stan was loved by everyone who knew and worked with him. Thank you for this wonderful piece and tribute to Stan. I love your descriptions of his voice! Poetic and Perfect.

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    • Kim, I hated not being there. Told Kay as much. Heard it went well and that Cathy Gant-Hill delivered the goods on her eulogy. I thought much about Stan yesterday as well as the folks assembled from points everywhere. Even Bernie Woodall from Fla. and Peter Khoury from NYC. A helluva newsroom was in CUCC yesterday afternoon.

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