Ask most people in Alamance County and they’d say Don Bolden is Burlington’s best example of the mild-mannered reporter. Quiet, unassuming, modest to a fault — Don is every one of those things. He evolved into a mild-mannered editor, too, then made the transition to easy-going editor emeritus. He’s the quintessential nice guy who’s also a pillar of the community and its gentle historian.
Unless, of course, you cross him. Then it’s best to look out.
I’ve known Don for almost 33 years and I only recall him really losing his temper once. Oh, I expect he was pushed into the red a few times by angry callers or other daily distractions and pressures common to journalists everywhere. But he was great at deflecting it and then hiding it from the staff — usually.
The late politician Cary Allred was the culprit. No surprise there. Allred was a cantankerous, bombastic and hypercritical sort who began every conversation at the pitch of a sonic boom. Even saying hello on the phone was a study in how to lose friends and alienate people: “HELLO! THIS IS CARY ALLRED!” he was known to yell into the phone on even a courtesy call. He pushed me to the limit a time or two.
Don’s interaction with Allred one particular day in the late 1980s or early 1990s wasn’t a pleasant one. We all felt that Allred had overstepped his usual harsh ways when he publicly ridiculed a young reporter on our staff, a woman just barely out of college in her first job. He did so at a meeting of the Alamance County Board of Commissioners. Don got wind of it. We contacted Allred for a powwow about this “misunderstanding” and it was held in the then-upstairs conference room at the Times-News office on Main Street. I was the city editor and in the room when it happened. As the meeting began, Don looked at Allred, shook a finger in his direction and said bluntly, “Do that again to one of our reporters and I’ll turn you into a greasy spot.”
Allred, who served as a commissioner and in the state Legislature in a long political career ultimately undone by his own excesses, leading to resignation from the N.C. House, didn’t say much in return and it set a tone for the meeting. Everyone in the room was taken aback. The newspaper won the argument.
Nearly every newsroom staffer at that time remembers it. Bill Varian still brings it up from time to time. It was so un-Don-like, a little shocking and oddly inspiring. It was like Clark Kent sauntered into a phone booth and emerged a fire-breathing Superman ready to take down a discount Lex Luthor.
Don has a lot of favorite stories he shares with gatherings when called upon to speak about his newspaper days or the history of Alamance County – like the time the Burlington Fire Department and Police Department abandoned him atop a building, or when the press caught on fire the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, or the time he talked his way into the Oval Office in order to get the money shot of President Reagan giving Cummings High teacher Donna Oliver her crystal apple as National Teacher of the Year. But he never tells the “greasy spot” story. At least I’ve never heard him tell it.
But I’ll always remember because the message he sent that day was not only one for a local politician run amok but for the staff as well. No matter how mild-mannered Don might seem, he had our backs.
I’m writing about Don because today he’s ending an incredible column writing stint at the Times-News. He told me last year as I was preparing to make my exit from newspapers that his column would be ending in March – when he officially hit his 60th year of writing a weekly column. He began on March 5, 1957, two years before I was even born. Don’s string of column writing nearly doubles my years in the business. Sure he missed a week here or there, but it’s a Ripkenesque journalism achievement and a testament to Don’s dedication to his craft and community, not to mention his abiding interests in Alamance County, where he was born and raised.
No wonder his portrait is in the newsroom at the Times-News.
Don retired as executive editor 17 years ago, as a new century was just coming into focus. He was succeeded by Lee Barnes and then I took over for Lee in 2007. I was first hired by the Times-News in November of 1984 by the late sports editor, Bill Hunter – who did so with Don’s blessing. Don, by the way, cut his teeth working with Hunter covering sports assignments before he won a job after college in news.
In another coincidence, Don and my mom graduated from the UNC School of Journalism in the same year but did not know each other.
I’ll always remember that Don was patient with my often ill temperament as a young sports writer and then weekend and city editor. He often ignored my more outlandish or angry statements and sat me down quietly on occasion to show me the error of my ways. That I remained in newspapers for 34 years is largely a debt I owe Don for guiding me gently during those times I was most prone to going awry.
When I returned to the Times-News in 2007, after my 15 year run with the Jacksonville Daily News, Don was among the first to greet and welcome me back. I was glad to see his column was still reliably there for Times-News readers. I remember one of my first weeks back Don turned in a column about Hardrock Simspson, Alamance County’s legendary long-distance runner – and I do mean long distance. Hardrock put marathoners to shame and once outraced a horse – over an incredible distance. I remember telling my wife, Roselee, that it wouldn’t be the last time Don wrote about Hardrock Simpson. And it wasn’t.
Don’s loyal readers never grew tired of reading about Hardrock, or Lulu the Snow Goat or his trip to the Soviet Union with the Cummings chorus or his brushes with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa and other luminaries during his career. He was a cheerleader for Elon College and University and introduced me to people there who helped land the job I have now. He almost always thought of the community first. I was proud on the night a few years ago to be in attendance when Burlington proclaimed it Don Bolden Day — and even prouder to be part of the ruse that got Don there by surprise. You didn’t pull the wool over Don’s eyes very often. I was happiest to do something for Don. Our relationship is very one-sided in that regard. He’s done far more for me than I could ever do for him.
By any standard, Don’s had an amazing run nearly equaling Hardrock Simpson. And it’s not over. He’ll continue to be the editor emeritus of the Times-News. He’ll continue to write about Alamance County’s history for one book or another. I happen to know he’s working on one project now, but I’m not sure if I can say what it’s about. I wouldn’t eliminate the possibility that he might write the occasional story for the Times-News here or there — just not on a regular basis.
As a newspaper reader, I’ll miss him. The Times-News has lost some popular local columnists over the last few years. First Frances Woody and in the last 12 months, Jay Ashley and now Don.
And even though I’m sure to still see Don from time to time around town, I just wanted to tell him one thing today — his last after 60 years of writing a column.
Thanks for everything, Don. And thanks most of all for having my back.