Another pitch for Bill Hunter’s addition to the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame

They buried Caulton Tudor the other day, an occasion for more than a few stories among sports writers who covered the ACC and other events in North Carolina the previous four decades. Lots of tall tales, lots of laughing, lots of memories shared of games covered and late nights afterward, when the deadline was history and things got a little blurry.

I recognized a lot of names mentioned among those who attended Caulton Tudor’s funeral. I was a sports writer in the 1980s — from 1982 to 1988 — and knew quite a few of them. As it turned out, I wasn’t in the sports writing fraternity long enough to establish  deep relationships with many of them. It was a special group, almost a club. Some were writers I read growing up when I decided to pursue a career in journalism and had an overriding interest in sports — especially ACC sports. They were figures I wanted to emulate.

Tudor was among the best of them. Always interesting, sometimes provocative, he sparked as much debate as he hashed. With the afternoon Raleigh Times and later with the News & Observer and WRAL, he helped author the story of the Atlantic Coast Conference and some of the greatest sports moments in North Carolina’s rich history of athletic achievements. My friend and former newspaper colleague, Burlington Times-News sports editor Bob Sutton, told me Tudor had been in declining health for about a year. And when he was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame this year he sent a video rather than attend the ceremony.

Tudor’s passing made me think of Bill Hunter, my late friend, colleague, sports editor and in many ways mentor. He was among the best of them, too. Few from the sports writing fraternity of which Hunter was a part remain in the business anymore. Tudor was still writing and tweeting for WRAL to the end of his life. My friend Dan Collins retired from the Winston-Salem Journal earlier this year. I can think of no others off the top of my head. Hunter was the dean of state sports writers when he retired in the early 1990s after 37 years as sports editor of the Times-News — a job he took after serving in World War II and graduating from what was then-Elon College. He was a native of Alamance County and lived most of his life in Graham.

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This photo of the late Bill Hunter was taken in the old Times-News Sports Department, which is now the circulation director’s office. Bill is pointing to his traditionally messy desk, which has just been cleaned (although the crop removed all evidence of it). He and I worked together in this little area for four years. This photo is framed and in my office at Elon.

I thought of Hunter a second time over the weekend when Rich Jackson, who replaced me as editor of the Times-News earlier this year, told me he attended Elon University’s homecoming football game and was thrilled to meet Rich McGeorge, an Elon football legend and Elon hall of famer who went on to play for the Green Bay Packers. It was a huge deal for Rich Jackson who grew up in Wisconsin and is a serious fan of the Packers. Upon meeting McGeorge, Rich told him he was the newspaper editor. McGeorge immediately regaled him with stories about Bill Hunter, the man who covered all Elon sports — but especially football — so faithfully and well during McGeorge’s time and years long after. McGeorge graduated from Elon in 1971 and still recalled Hunter with fondness 48 years later. Forty-eight years.

And I wondered again why William C. “Bill” Hunter isn’t in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. It’s a serious oversight and one I fear may be lost to history.

If it happens, that’s a damn shame.

At the moment, the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame is populated with incredibly worthy members, many of whom Hunter wrote about during his time. From Elon alone the list includes McGeorge, Red Wilson, Dr. Alan White, Jerry Tolley, Tom Parham, Kay Yow and Susan Yow. It would be impossible to list the countless others affiliated with ACC athletics or golf.

Tolley and Parham were inducted in 2011 and I worked with both when I was a sports writer in the Times-News sports department when Hunter was sports editor. I spoke to Tolley, now the mayor for the town of Elon, then about the oversight. Bill covered probably every snap of two football NAIA national title seasons for Elon when Tolley was head coach. Parham, by the way, had national success as a tennis coach for Elon.

“(Bill Hunter) was the face of sports in the county for all those years. If you thought of anyone who was a sports writer, it was Mr. Hunter,” Tolley said in 2011. “He was something.”

Several years ago Don Bolden, the editor emeritus of the Times-News and who — along with Hunter — gave me my first job at the Times-News in 1984, made it a goal to have Bill enshrined in the Hall. It became a mission after Bill passed away in 1998 after a short battle with cancer. Don is an almost lifetime fan of Bill’s writing style. I was, too. If I had to list my favorite sports writers of all time, Bill Hunter would be in the top five. I learned more about writing from reading Bill than anyone else. He actually made me want to read about NASCAR.

Nice guy, too.

“There was no time when Elon was winning or losing that I didn’t want to talk to him because he was such an outstanding person,” said Tolley, who was on the winning end far more often than the losing one when Bill covered Elon as his primary beat. It wasn’t uncommon for Bill to speak to the Elon football coach several times a week during the season be it Red Wilson, Jerry Tolley or Mackey Carden.

“He was a gentleman reporter,” Tolley added.

Indeed, Bill bridged multiple eras of sports reporting. When he began, few newspapers paid much attention to full coverage of high school athletics. Hunter was among the sports editors who decided this was a mistake and devoted time, space and effort to chronicling the previously unheralded efforts of prep “gridders,” “cagers,” “netters” and “thinclads.” Bill loved that old-school language.

“To Bill, coverage of a high school baseball game is just as important as the last game of the World Series, or a high school golf event is as important as the Masters,” Bolden once noted.

When big-time college athletics arrived in North Carolina, Bill made sure the Times-News handled it and did so well. But he never lost sight of the importance of local sports. He made sure we covered area high schools, Elon and golf. The latter two he took care of personally. He was an Elon alum, after all. Golf was his favorite leisure activity.

“He was an Elon person all the way. He was very supportive of Elon, not just football but all sports,” Tolley said.

Bill emerged from a kinder time in sports writing, and reporting in general. Local newspapers rooted for the home team and seldom searched for scandal. But when scandal erupted, as it does every so often, he wrote about it, too. He once ticked off Dean Smith by reporting that UNC player Geoff Crompton of Burlington played in a YMCA-league game on a weeknight when that was forbidden by the NCAA.

He touted the accomplishments of people in the community without fail. Folks who scored a hole-in-one or double-eagle got in the paper. If they caught a fish at Lake Cammack, it got published — with a photo.

Many of Bill’s media contemporaries are already in the Hall, including Smith Barrier and Irwin Smallwood, both of the Greensboro Daily News and later News and Record; and Denton’s Furman Bisher, a sports writing giant for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Other Hunter writing or editing contemporaries in the hall include: Lenox Rawlings of the Winston-Salem Journal, who retired a handful of years ago in 2012 after a stellar career as a columnist; Ron Green Sr. of the Charlotte Observer; A.J. Carr of the Raleigh News & Observer; Wilt Browning of the Greensboro News & Record; Bob Quincy of the Charlotte News; and the late pioneering sports writer Mary Garber of the Winston-Salem Journal. All of them are among the most noted, successful and decorated sports reporters in the state spanning multiple generations of fans. Hunter was the equal or better of them all as a writer and observer, witnessing and recording the history of sports in North Carolina. He also shared a press box with broadcasters like Mebane’s Woody Durham, the voice of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels for decades; Gene Overby, the voice of Wake Forest athletics and one-time sports anchor at WXII / WSJS in Winston-Salem; Charlie Harville, sports anchor at WGHP and WFMY for dozens of years; and Bob Harris, the longtime voice of Duke athletics.

It’s a stellar list of ground-breaking journalists, writing stylists, voices, keen observers and leaders who were there when the ACC emerged from a regional cocoon to a leader in college athletics — especially basketball. They more than anyone else, put all sports in North Carolina on a national map.

And Bill Hunter belongs right there with them.

 

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