Sunday afternoon we said goodbye to one-time newspaper colleague and lifetime friend Don Bolden, who died Aug. 2, 2018 at age 85 after an eight-month fight with cancer. I made the short drive from my house in Burlington to First Baptist Church in downtown just a few miles away. Others traveled far greater distances to be there.
By coincidence I landed at the front door of the church at exactly the same time as two of those who traveled the furthest. What are the odds? The twosome arrived together — as old friends often do. One of them I met 34 years ago when I first walked into the Burlington Times-News as the new guy in sports. Lee Barnes, who now lives in Florida, was the Times-News city editor then and a powerful influence on my professional life thereafter. He returned to Burlington when Don retired to become executive editor. I replaced Lee in that job when he left for another newspaper in 2007. Sunday Lee was traveling with his longtime pal Mark Davis, a Times-News reporter a year or two before my time there, but someone I still know and like very much.
“I told Lee if he could get from Florida to Atlanta I’d make sure he got the rest of the way,” Mark said. Both were young reporters when they first met Don Bolden. Mark went on to have a brilliant reporting and writing career that took him to newspapers in Philadelphia, Atlanta and a few other spots, too. Along the way he covered everything from the O.J. Simpson trial to an arsenic-poisoning matron in Alamance County who is now the oldest inmate on North Carolina’s Death Row. I first met Mark when he returned to Burlington to write a feature story about the Blanche Taylor Moore case — a national story — and I was the city editor at the Times-News by that time. Later we became friends through our mutual friend Lee Barnes and my boss and friend later at the Jacksonville Daily News, Elliott Potter.
That’s how it goes in newspapers. Every single reporter, editor and photographer I know is six degrees of separation from almost anyone else in the business. There is a certain poetic quality to this lattice of coincidence (expression stolen from the seminal film “Repo Man”). We all know somebody who knows someone else who worked with this person after he or she worked with that person. I have witnessed this particularly over my last nine years on social media. I might see via Facebook that Bill Varian made a comment on a post by Jill Palermo. I worked with Jill at the Daily News in Jacksonville and when we compared notes we determined that I worked with Bill at the Times-News. She worked with him at the Tallahassee Democrat.
See how it works? This happens far too often to be random.
There was little random at all about our gatherings over the weekend. A few former Times-News staff members made the time to either pay their respects at the Saturday visitation or the Sunday afternoon Celebration of Life. On Saturday I bumped into Marc Barnes, a reporter for the Times-News when I accepted a job there the first time in November of 1984. When Marc left a couple of months later to take a job with the Fayetteville Observer, I took over his duplex apartment on Summit Avenue. I hadn’t seen Marc since he gave me the keys to his apartment.
On Sunday Lee and Mark were the first people I ran into and it was great seeing them, even though the occasion was one of profound sadness. Lee met me at the front of the massive church with a hug and Mark did the same. We looked inside the sanctuary to see who was in attendance we might know. We looked first for Jay Ashley, a Times-News reporter from the early 1980s and a managing editor in the 2000s when Lee was editor and when I was editor. Lee, with sharper eyes than I’ll ever have, spotted Jay immediately. When we got to his row many in the Times-News family were there — including former staffers Frances Woody, Helen West, Judi Baker, Scott Muthersbaugh and Frank Isley. Current staff members Charity Apple Pierce, Linda Bowden, Michele Terry and Bob Sutton were there or nearby. Later, former managing editor John Pea settled in behind us. In the crowd we also spotted Candy Hatcher Gregor, who worked with Lee and Mark but has come to know me via social media. We saw Barry Smith, former reporter and news editor from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Barry later ran a Raleigh bureau office for Freedom Newspapers’ North Carolina newspapers, until that operation was shut down due to budget cuts. I saw retired ad director Eddie Shatterly, retired publisher Steve Buckley and current publisher Paul Mauney. Rich Jackson, who replaced me in 2017 as executive editor of the Times-News was there with his daughter Clare. I saw them at the visitation, too.
Later we collected in a gathering area on the church’s lowest floor — all the newspaper people in one spot interacting with each other as we are accustomed to doing. We caught up on new times and swapped some old stories. Candy Hatcher Gregor and her husband John live in Arkansas today but were in Boone on vacation and detoured to Burlington to attend the service. Candy and I don’t know each other well but for awhile thought we shared one weird coincidence. We were born within three days of each other at the same hospital in Winston-Salem. For awhile we referred to each other as “nursery-mates.” Candy joked that we probably produced some form of an early newspaper together there. “It had to be pure pablum for sure at that time,” I added with a smile. It turns out that upon further review, I was born at Forsyth Memorial and Candy was born at Baptist. Still, among our common newspaper colleagues are not only Lee, Jay and Mark but Diana D’Abruzzo, who worked with me as an intern and later as a full-time reporter at the Daily News in Jacksonville before going to the Wilmington Star, the Virginia Pilot and Politico. She and Candy worked together at the Pilot.
The connections never seem to end.
We all agreed on Sunday that catching up is nice but we should try to do so in situations that don’t involve the death of someone we like. That so often tends to be the case. We lead busy and complicated lives. Candy recalled that a Facebook group a few years back posed the idea of an overall reunion of Times-News reporters, photographers and editors from the past. When it came up then one voice said, “We should do it sooner rather than later,” Candy recalled, adding that the voice was Don’s.
It gave me a chill.
As someone who bridges multiple generations of Times-News staff members who is now rooted in Burlington some of the planning for this kind of reunion will fall to me. I promised Candy, Mark and the others that I would try to put this in motion. When I retired from newspapers in November of 2016, my friends Steve Huffman, Lisa Ashmore, John Helton and others conspired with my spouse to pull off a mini-reunion of 1980s Times-News staff members. Don was there that day.
This event would be much larger in scope and include people who worked in the Burlington newsroom over the past 40 years at least. I hope to share this post widely and get a handle on when such a reunion would be feasible with the maximum number of people in attendance. Give me your feedback here or on Facebook. Those of you who know a former Times-Newser, please feel free to share this information. Maybe sometime within the next 12 months we can get something scheduled.
About the time the new beer co-op opens downtown. Hmmm.